Plensa has utilized the motif of a white, monumental, female head in works before Rio’s Awilda. Echo (2011) was installed temporarily in Madison Square Park, New York, Dream (2009) can be seen in St. Helens, and another Awilda(2010) is permanently installed in Salzburg. Each time, Plensa uses a smooth, blank face as a representation of the place in which it rests. For example, Echo alluded to the Greek myth of a nymph who could only repeat the thoughts of others, so the sculpture in busy New York acted as a tranquil reservoir for the thoughts of millions of passersby. Often, the fabrication of the head points to a specific message. The Salzburg Awilda, for instance, is made of layered slabs of marble stacked on top of each other. This layered configuration points to the particular meaning of this work, which represents the hopes and dreams of the layers of humanity that have immigrated to Europe over the centuries. Regardless of the location, Plensa uses this simple and elegant motif to highlight unique aspects of the site.
For Rio’s Awilda, Plensa wanted to “make the people dream,” and so he placed the figure in a dream-like setting. The name Awilda means “untamed” and is historically associated with a legend about a Scandinavian princess who became a pirate rather than being forced to marry. This history, combined with the rest of the title, Olhar nos meus sonhos / To see my dreams, alludes to a character of strong will and vast inner space. Plensa’s sculpture captures these attributes fully. Awilda is a monumental figure of serenity and mystery. Rooted in water and framed by the iconic landscape of Sugarloaf Mountain, the sculpture acts as the female, earthly, inward-facing counterpoint to Rio’s more iconic monument, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), which embraces the city (and the world) from his heavenly perch on Corcovado Hill. She is approachable and touchable, fully displayed for the public but looking inward from it, a blank canvas for interpretations, thoughts, and dreams. She encourages the viewer to close their eyes and see within.
With this sculpture, Plensa demonstrates a unique ability to present a public with something that is beautiful and compelling enough to demand attention, while simultaneously open to interpretation, critical conversation, and personal reflection. The work creates space for both individual and collective interaction and meaning. Rather than assign a meaning to a place, Plensa allows the place—and its people—to arrive at their own meaning.
All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.