I lose my kids in The Matter of Time. I kind of lose my temper too.
The museum guides are unbothered by the high jinks ducking and diving of my offspring, but they gaze at me curiously as I trail in the whirl of my childrens’ wake – shrieking for them to behave themselves, as softly as I can. The kids turn their heads to laugh, then vanish from sight into a huge weathered steel sculpture.
Richard Serra’s installation is permanent and vastly formed. Eyes cannot absorb it all at once – but to try to do so is missing the point (as I did, chasing my children). Serra’s eight massive sculptures of ellipses and spirals, together with the Snake, speak to all the senses – their smooth turns and curves call for movement, and playful interaction. As you walk (or run) along passages created by huge sheets of steel that appear so delicate, the paths widen then narrow, and open up again. Upright walls start to bulge or lean. You look upwards, downwards, you want to touch them and brush the rusting colours with your arms as you skim by.
I track down my boys, running inside an endless elliptical illusion. We are all flummoxed by its external view not seeming to match up to its internal scale. “It goes on forever!” gasps No. 4.
On reaching the middle, he scampers around, then races outwards ahead of his brothers, who although older (and therefore cooler), can’t help trying to keep up, equally exhilarated by this experience that is as unique as it is unexpected.
In a side room, the models of the sculptures boggle the brain too. They represent confidently conceived, and skillfully executed pieces of art. Serra has not glued them to the ground – instead they balance, apparently weightless. The viewer must trust in his meticulous calculations.
As we return to the real thing we see that, assembled together, the sculptures inhabit their enormous space perfectly. And the area they fill is part of the whole.
Reluctant though we are to leave, a call of nature cannot be ignored no matter how hard we try.
Fortunately there is more to see post-pee.
Like these gigantic, garishly coloured tulips clumped near the water by sculptor Jeff Koons. The children love them, and I agree that their shiny ballooned surfaces make a sequence of interesting, reflective images as we angle around them.
Back inside, we take a glass elevator up to the top floor …
… where we step into a gallery containing colossal pieces of artwork.
Anselm Kiefer’s work strikes us all. Mostly in silence, we circle the room, stopping before his immense canvases. Kiefer layers and mixes unconventional materials – lead, emulsion, acrylic, sometimes wire, sand, shellac*, dust, ashes and dried flowers. I feel tempted to reach out a hand to feel the surface of massive The Land of the Two Rivers (1995), which is encrusted with salt (created through electrolysis).
Kiefer was born in postwar Germany (1945) and was well aware that the recent history of the Third Reich was never discussed during his schooldays. Later, he did what his teachers did not, and explored the legacy of Nazism through his work.
I love the powerful imagery of Sunflowers (Tournesols) (1996) (it’s no coincidence that one of Kiefer’s heros is Van Gogh – sunflowers are a recurring theme in his work). At first I think the painting’s message is very dark, but the more I look at it, the more I wonder if my initial impression is wrong. One of the kids tells me he likes the painting too, but adds that he doesn’t really understand it.
I’m not sure I do either, so together we conclude that Kiefer’s ideas are too complex to condense into an easy explanation, and that perhaps it’s okay not to fully get them. But we read the helpful guide and note the artist’s preoccupation with contrasts – between past and present, war and peace, order and chaos, the individual and the universal, and death, life, and rebirth – the cycle of life and metamorphosis.
Leaving the gallery, we linger at the top of the Guggenheim’s huge atrium to digest the big ideas that Kiefer poses, and admire Frank Gehry’s light, bright and fluid design that brings its exterior in.
Outside, the artwork continues – disguised as mammoth spiders, bridges, mirrored trees …
… and even waterworks. We think this is a simply genius way of refreshing over-heated weary sightseers. But no – its concept is greater than that. Designed by Fujiko Nakaya, F.O.G. (standing for Frank O. Gehry) is an ephemeral fog sculpture to experience every hour if you wish. Once was perfect for us.
As we leave I wonder why the flower-adorned puppy that guards the Guggenheim Museum seems so intimidating. I doubt that’s what Jeff Koons intended when he created it – but still I try not to stray too close.
I can’t leave without mentioning the beauty and impact of Frank Gehry’s spaceship-like design. Built next to the Nervión river, and finished with 33,000 paper-thin titanium sheets, it reflects its environment to stunning effect.
When the museum opened in 1997 it helped to push Bilbao’s regeneration into the 21st century, and shake off the city’s old industrial image to take centre stage of the art world.
- There is, of course, so much more to see at the Guggenheim, but fearing museum overload, we take just brief looks at Andy Warhol’s Shadows and some of the works of Eduardo Chillida, Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
- The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is sensational. If you’d like to visit, it’s worth checking out its website for opening times and current exhibitions. Also, we found the queue went quickly, but it might be a better idea to book ahead (prices vary, but at time of writing it costs 13 euros for an adult ticket, 7,50 euros for a student or senior citizen. Under-12s are free). Even if a trip to Bilbao isn’t on the cards, the website is fun and and super informative, and may detain you awhile. https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/en/
- Food and drink: the museum offers something for everyone – a Michelin starred restaurant, a Bistró and a café/bar. We had some tasty pintxos at tables spilling out from the café – a wonderful way to sit and enjoy Frank Gehry’s architecture. However, there are also plenty of other eateries nearby.
- *Shellac (I had to look this up) is a resin produced by the female lac bug in India and Thailand. Once processed into a liquid, it can be used as a food glaze, colorant or wood finish.