Bilbao, País Vasco, Spain – September 12th, 2010
I’m not a big fan of modern art. I like some of it better than others, and yes, I try to distance myself and understand that most of these artists know how to paint perfectly well, that they’re not really just a bunch of guys splashing paint around, fooling the critics with a false sense of profundity, and laughing all the way to the bank, but still, it’s not usually my sort of thing.
It really doesn’t matter what you think of the art, though – when you go to Bilbao, you have to go to the Guggenheim. The city and its museum are almost synonymous with each other. Before I ever dreamed of studying in Spain, the name Bilbao brought to my mind a vague image of Puppy, the dog made of flowers which guards the museum’s doors. So it was never really an option not to go, and it was cheap enough, for students.
I have to say that, just like the rest of Bilbao, I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. There were some rooms in the complex that I walked through quickly, utterly unimpressed. One entire floor was a special exhibit of ‘gluts’, which basically just looked like piles of trash to me, however much I sympathised with the artist’s purported message and tried to look at them through that light.
“It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins […] I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia.” – Robert Rauschenberg
Other rooms were full of paintings that, to me, lacked any sort of feeling, balance, or aesthetic merit. But someone else may see meaning in them, and that’s what ultimately matters.
What did I like? A lot, actually. I’m partial to modern sculptures because there’s something so physical and tactile about it – just the idea of 3D physical materials and space being twisted into the shape in someone’s imagination is something fascinating.
The first exhibit that drew me in as I entered was “The Matter of Time”, which may be Bilbao’s most famous exhibit after “Puppy”. It’s comprised of huge masses of iron and other materials, twisted into shapes such as spirals and waves. You can walk in, through, and around the sculptures, which are meant to distort and represent people’s experience of time. My friend Jorge says he feels like it takes longer to walk out of the spirals than it takes to reach their centers. As for myself, I found it oddly relaxing and timeless to walk around inside of them, with the soft and undulating patterns made by the natural corrugation of the metals running alongside me.
I also loved the Anish Kapoor exhibit, which took up an entire floor. Anish Kapoor is an Indian-British sculptor, and experiments with a huge number of materials and techniques in his work. One segment of his exhibit was filled with mirrors – I loved walking around there, although I wasn’t sure I pulled any deeper meaning from it than I would from a similar room at the carnival! Several other rooms were home to his experiments with colour as a physical thing which exists in three dimensions. He approached this from different angles, with one room housing sculptures made purely from powdery pigment, the result vaguely resembling bright cones of spice and incense. In another room, an enormous, slightly concave wall was painted bright yellow, which almost overwhelmed me as I approached it and played tricks with my understanding of the space.
In two of his works, Kapoor played with deep red wax (think, lipstick) – slowly spreading it across the floor in a circle in one room, and, in another, shooting canisters of it out of a cannon and into the corner. I felt as I had in the mirror room – that whether or not I could discern the work’s deeper meaning, it was wonderful to look at. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off the cannon exhibit, with the deep rich colour, the delicious textures, and the pseudo-sexual imagery so obvious even I picked up on it.
My favourite pieces by Kapoor, and maybe in the whole museum, were in a series he did exploring the ideas of darkness, the infinite, and addition by subtraction. One sculpture was a stone he had hollowed out and painted a deep black-blue inside – from most angles it looked as though there was a two dimensional plaque hung on the surface of the stone, instead of rectangular hole leading to the hollowed out center. There were also three huge concave disks, hung on the wall and painted with the same dark blue-black. It was dizzying, beautiful, and frightening to stand close to them and gaze into their centers, as if you were looking very far away, out into the universe, or into an inky pool of infinite nothingness.
On a simpler, more aesthetic level, I also enjoyed all of the outdoor exhibits – the giant spider, the balloon-like, reflective Tulips, the tower of spherical mirrors, and of course, the famous and adorable “Puppy”!