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Amsterdam to Rome Cruise Post #5 – ‘Bilbao, Spain: The City of Guggenheim’

Bilbao, Spain skyline

Bilbao, Spain skyline

On June 15th, 1300, Don Diego Lopez de Haro V, Lord of Biscay, founded the Basque city of Bilbao. Seven hundred and fourteen years later, Bilbao encompasses almost 1 million inhabitants, nearly half the total population of the Basque Country and the fourth-largest urban population in Spain.

La Salve Bridge with spider sculpture “Maman” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois, next to the Guggenheim Museum

La Salve Bridge with spider sculpture “Maman” (1999) by Louise Bourgeois, outside the Guggenheim Museum

The main reason I had been dreaming to visit Bilbao, was to finally set eyes on the magnificent Guggenheim Museum designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. Thanks to the ship’s itinerary, my wish came true. As we drove toward the shimmering vision of 30,000 sheets of titanium, suddenly there before us was the towering 257,000 square foot monumental masterpiece, built in the shape of a ship. The museum opened in October 1997 and overnight, became Bilbao’s main attraction worldwide. The enormous atrium, more than 150-feet high, is connected to the 19 galleries by a system of suspended metal walkways and glass elevators. The museum’s collection has featured the works of some of the most influential artists of the last century, including Pablo Picasso, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollack, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Richard Serra.

Frank Gehry's interior design - Guggenheim Museum

Frank Gehry’s interior design – Guggenheim Museum

The present installation in the Film & Video gallery of the Guggenheim, is dedicated to The Visitors, a series of nine gigantic screens of video by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors documents a musical performance staged at Rokeby Farm, in upstate New York, where each musician was recorded individually, so that every screen shows a different participant playing a different instrument in a separate setting. When all these single takes are combined all at once in one large room, the performance emerges as a whole. Standing in that room, surrounded 360 degrees with sound and giant images was the closest thing to instant euphoria I’ve had since I was a young hippie.

Ragnar Kjartansson plays a section from his installation piece, "The Visitors"

Ragnar Kjartansson plays a section from his musical installation piece, “The Visitors”

Then there was The Matter of Time by Richard Serra, described by the artist as an installation of sculpted forms that the spectator journeys through… from double-ellipse to the spiral – these sculptures are built from sections of toruses and spheres to create environments with differing effects on the viewer’s movement and perception. Shifting in unexpected ways, as viewers walk in and around them, these sculptures are meant to create a dizzying, unforgettable sensation of space in motion. The entirety of the room is part of the sculptural field. The layout in the gallery, creates passages of space that are distinctly different—narrow and wide, compressed and elongated, modest and towering—and always unanticipated. There is also the progression of time. There is the chronological time it takes to walk through and view The Matter of Time, between the beginning and end of the visit. And there is the experiential time, the fragments of visual and physical memory that linger and recombine and replay… But there is one thing that Mr. Serra may not have counted on, or perhaps he did – the visitor getting lost and disoriented, which is what happened to me. I felt panicky, lost in towering cement blocks looking for a way out.

Double-ellipse and spiral sculpted forms that make up Richard Serra's "A Matter of Time"

Double-ellipse and spiral sculpted forms that make up Richard Serra’s “A Matter of Time”

A tour guide told me that “Time, in Bilbao, may soon need to be identified as BG or AG (Before Guggenheim, After Guggenheim).” Never has a single monument of art and architecture, so radically changed a city, or for that matter, a nation… and in this case two: Spain and Euskadi. The Basque Country, which straddles the western end of Spain’s border, with France, also has its own language, Euskera, a non-Indo-European tongue – so mysterious, that linguists have never been able to agree on its origin. Local pride is fierce here: the Basque language and culture are purposefully celebrated, and nationalist sentiment is strong.

Exterior of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry

Exterior of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry

As we departed, we said goodbye to”Puppy,” which stands outside the museum. This giant dog designed by Jeff Koons has a wire frame, an interior watering system, and 25 tons of soil supporting the plants that cover it. It was intended to be a temporary exhibit at the museum’s opening, but people loved it and so it stayed.

"Puppy" -  floral sculpture of a Western Highland Terrier by Jeff Koons

“Puppy” – floral sculpture of a Western Highland Terrier by Jeff Koons

All photographs except 4-6 taken by Ryan Oksenberg


  1. Alan Mandell says

    My dear Karen,
    I really enjoy these blogs /essays of yours. When I am finally ready to travel I will be consulting you.
    Keep traveling and keep writing.

    Love…. Alan

  2. Karen,
    Your love of life is reflected in this joyous blog. Thanks you for sharing your excitement and appreciation for all that you have seen on your Voyage of Discovery!

  3. Thanks so much dear Colby for your lovely words! Missing you and hoping to see you soon~


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