Postcard from Bilbao

Art Life , TAL International Jul 29, 2011 1 Comment

Sharne Wolff has a fine old time walking through Spain while building incredible calf muscles and art appreciation skills along the way…

A couple of months ago three good friends and I said goodbye to the beginnings of winter in Byron Bay and jumped on a flight to Spain. We spent our first week in wonderful Barcelona (one of the world’s current ‘it’ spots – for very good reason) and many nights listening to the protests of the young Spanish indignados in the Placa de Catalunya. Our trip then took us to the northern coast of Spain where we would begin our epic walk from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela – 800 kilometres away. The route to Santiago is hardly a modern activity, being originally established as a trade route by the Romans who navigated using the Milky Way.

We, however, wanted to walk the ‘road less travelled’ and follow the yellow arrows on a different track to the excessively popular French Route located further south. The ‘Camino del Norte’ (or Northern Way) we decided had several advantages. The most important one for art lovers is that it took us to the outskirts of the city of Bilbao, nestled on the Bay of Biscay, and now renowned as the home of one of the world’s major art galleries, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

After four days walking, we were so close to the city (and so exhausted) that we figured there was no reason not to have a day off and pop into Bilbao to explore the city and the Guggenheim. We arrived in Bilbao on a Saturday afternoon after an easy day of 20 kilometres walking and a huge three-course lunch shared with another walker, a French ex-diplomat we’d come across at the Monasterio de Zenarruza where we’d spent the previous night hosted by the local monks. The local Padre and his fellow brothers sold spectacular homemade biscuits and wine at their shop, offered us a bed and a hot shower and then cooked dinner – all for the price of a donation, such was the kindness and hospitality of the Basque people generally.

On the evening we arrived in the city the whole place was simply pulsing with energy. A political demonstration was heightening in the square below our hotel where the young locals were joining in sympathy with those in Barcelona to ‘reclaim the streets’. Also in town that evening (it didn’t get dark till after 10.30pm) was the finish of a major triathlon shown simultaneously on a giant video screen, with commentary so loud that we had to close all the windows in our room. Barcelona was playing Manchester United on TV before noisy crowds in every pub and (for some reason) they were joined by lots of wild pre-wedding celebrations for young Spaniards. People were partying in the streets in football jumpers and fancy dress and family groups were having dinner – all within the confines of a few crowded blocks in the old city. I’ve never seen such a concentration of bars and restaurants in one place.

There are loads of stories about the Guggenheim as an example of how art and culture can lead to urban renewal – we witnessed the living-breathing example.

So, back to the art… On a perfect Sunday morning we strolled along the river past numerous public art sculptures to one of the world’s most spectacular avant-garde buildings. Designed by Frank Gehry and built by the Guggenheim foundation in New York (with the cooperation of the Spanish government and the city of Bilbao) the Museum strikes you first as a vast sculpture rather than as a building. We approached on foot along the banks of the Nervion River where the sculptural angles of the building are evident from some distance and create a real sense of excitement. Up close, the Museum towers over the river like a giant ship docked in port – gleaming scales of silver titanium coating it like fish scales which, on a gorgeous Spanish day, shone in the sun and reflected around its perfectly formed curves of glass and metal. The city, the river and the mountains act as alternative backdrops. Natural and urban scenes coincide as the colours and movement of both is reflected in the constantly changing appearance of the Museum.

Sculptures by many artists line the banks of the river and surround the exterior of the building. An amazing artificial fog installation by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya (‘Fog Sculpture #08025 (F.O.G.)’) drifts upward from the water adjacent to the façade and Jeff Koons colourful ‘Tulips’ (1995). Koons’ controversial 12 metre ‘Puppy’ (1992)– is also now a permanent installation outside the front entrance of the Museum. Last time I saw the ‘Puppy’ at Sydney’s MCA there was barely a flower in sight – this time the ‘Puppy’ was in full spring bloom and was acting as a meeting place for Bilbao locals to bring their dogs on a Sunday morning – all of which added to it’s aesthetic effect and perhaps incidentally to its purpose as a work of art.

I guess the risk of exhibiting art in buildings like the Bilbao Guggenheim is that the architecture can somehow overwhelm or argue with the importance of the art inside. In my view, at least so far as the permanent collection was concerned, the building contributed to the effect. We were disappointed to learn that we were a few days early for a major 20th century exhibition on abstraction. Then again we only had one day to get around the rest of the works and it took us a few hours before we even ventured in.

Richard Serra’s ‘The Matter of Time’ (1994-2005) takes up an enormous part of the ground floor of the building – his huge steel ellipses and spheres sit in the ‘stern’ of the building – eight works in all including seven commissioned by the Museum to join Serra’s Snake (1994-97). There’s a certain ‘humming’ created by the echoes of people speaking and moving around inside the massive steel pieces which conjure up the feeling of being in the engine room of an ocean liner. I’m not sure whether it’s technically a sculpture or an installation but the entire work sits within its space in a balanced way and captures the nuances of the building perfectly. Of course there’s a lot of science and mathematics, motion and geometry going on here but this work is more about the engagement of the viewer through the psychology of interaction. The ‘art’ has been removed from its pedestal. The piece has a certain mystery about it (as well as the mystery of how they ever managed to get it inside the building in the first place) and the view from the ‘bridge’ on the first floor of the Museum only serves to add to the wonder of it all.

Two more works from the permanent collection were my favourites. The first one, a sound and light installation by American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, is entitled Installation for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 1997 1997 and, as the title suggests, was created for the space in which its sits. This is a conceptual piece designed as a light emitting diode on several tall parallel columns. The piece considers the relationship between art and advertising and consists of a red light sending vertical text messages about love in English and Spanish to the audience. On the reverse of each column the light is blue – and the text written in Euskara (the Basque language). In order to see the Euskara text one must ‘enter’ the piece by walking through the columns. The artist apparently designed the work as a metaphor for the fact that the Euskara language remained hidden for many years. The Basque people were forbidden to speak their own language during the years of the Franco rule in Spain. The blue light reflects on the walls of the Museum and again creates the feeling of being in a cave or in a ship surrounded by water.

Three Red Spanish Venuses’ (1997) by Jim Dine (also an American) sit nearby and close to the heart of this building. They tower over their audience in a definite move to make their presence felt. Dine, generally known as a pop artist, has had a bit of an obsession with Venus-style figures over the past couple of decades. This work is one of his most ambitious and was created using a steel structure covered in nylon mesh, polystyrene and red acrylic latex. The work of the palette knife is obvious in these tactile cubist forms – headless/armless beauties, which are scraped and molded lovingly, each one slightly different from the other. They are solid pieces aware of their own strength but at the same time retaining a sense of delicacy and a lightness of being. In this space they give the impression of power – holding up and supporting the building. Are they some sort of metaphor for the universal importance of women or specifically women in Spain? I have no idea – but after receiving the hospitality and kindness of many fabulous Spanish women whilst walking across four provinces, I’d like to think that that’s what the artist had in mind.

Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
Spain 2011

Sharne Wolff

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