The Matter of Time (and other things) at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Posts about travelling are not new to this blog (I’ve written about my travels here and here, for example). As well as going places in general, I love reporting on the art-worlds I encounter whenever I travel. I went to explore the Basque countries with a dear friend two weeks ago, and in our wanderings we simply had to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, arguably one of the most important contemporary museums in Europe.

As a huge fan of Peggy Guggenheim (you can read more about her in my piece here), I have a sort of obsessions with the Guggenheim Foundation. Pretty much every time I go back to Venice, I go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and I’m always in a state of awe when I see her impressive collection of 20th century art, which includes some of my favourite artworks. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao was therefore more than simply a touristy thing to do: it felt like a dream coming true, and set me in a state of thrilled excitement as we started approaching its wide and welcoming entrance.

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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, main entrance

The building itself inspires undeniable awe in the visitor. Since it it visible from several points of the city, it kept popping up as we walked around the city centre, until we finally ventured to go and see it. Designed in 1993 by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997, it’s one of the paramount examples of contemporary architecture. From what I had seen in pictures and online, I was expecting a cold, metallic, disorganised structure. Instead, I was amazed when I found before my eyes a flower-like construction, opening up with multiple layers of titanium stretching out organically in multiple directions. The thing that struck me the most was the colour palette the building takes on, depending on the time of the day and the atmospheric conditions. The metal of the outer structure reflects the light in a way that reminded me of the Dolomites: warm-coloured at sunset, grey and lead-y in the rain, the Guggenheim is genuinely integrated in its surroundings, acting as a mirror of the city and its ever-chaning weather.

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Guggenheim Bilbao, view from the river Nervion

The inside of the building is just as stunning as the outside. Stairs and lifts take the visitors to the several rooms, which might appear scattered and randomly placed at first, but turn out to be really easy to navigate. Confession: my friend and I spent *4 hours* inside the museum, seeing literally everything there was to see. Funnily enough, one of the current exhibitions was Abstract Expressionism, which I had explored (thoroughly) at the Royal Academy in London last October. As cheesy as it may sound, it was actually amazing to see it for the second time, and have new thoughts and fresh emotions while responding to familiar paintings – I thought I would never see those Rothko’s again.

To spare you of a detailed report on *all* the exhibitions and rooms we saw, here I’m focusing only on the two that I took away with me. The first is a retrospective of Basque contemporary artist Pello Irazu, replete with architectural sculpture and sculptural furniture. The second is Richard Serra’s ‘The Matter of Time’, a series of vertical dunes of steel, exploring the experience of temporality.

Irazu defines himself a conceptual and minimalist artist. His works investigate notions of domesticity, everyday life, space, architecture. A general tendency in his artistic production is to create a sense of defamiliarisation in the viewers, by presenting them with topsy-turvy bookshelves (‘X’, 2000), or tables with mirrors underneath that open up new dimensions below your feet (‘Room Under’, 1995). One of my favourite pieces from his retrospective was ‘Life Forms 304’ (2001), a multimedia sculpture. The main piece, an assemblage of straight lines and wooden squares, is integrated in the exhibition space by being placed in a room with a rounded corner, on which the artist has mimicked some of the colours and lines of the actual sculpture. This creates a surprising combination between sculpture and surroundings, showing how interrelated any sculpture is with the space it inhabits. The artist almost set up a dialogue between the piece and the space, creating a sense of immaterial depth.

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Pello Irazu, ‘Life Forms 304’ (2001)

If Irazu’s art is fundamentally conceptual and rational, Serra’s one-room exhibition goes all the way in the opposite direction, offering a visceral, intense, and primeval experience to the visitors. His imposing steel spirals, waves and ellipses are there for the visitors to walk around and into, and in so doing to encounter a new dimension of time and space. In fact, Serra claims that the person walking inside these sculptures is the real subject matter of the art work.

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Richard Serra, ‘The Matter of Time’ (2003-4)

The labyrinthine arrangement of the pieces causes us to experience layered temporalities. One does not know where the sculpture will lead her, who she will meet on the way, how long it will take her to get out. In addition, the shapes of the sculptures affect the journey, by leaning now towards now away from us as we walk alongside them; they cause our body to respond instinctively to their presence. In Serra’s words, ‘one need not know anything about sculpture to experience the work’ – the experience is very much a subjective one. There were people whistling, running, clapping inside the steel shapes, and having all sorts of reactions. It was impressive to see how a single room can generate so many deep thoughts, intense emotions, and unforgettable experiences.

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