Bilbao, A City Saved by Art and Architecture

I’m talking about the Guggenheim Museum, of course

The whole reason that Bilbao was on my travel route was due to the Guggenheim Museum (and it would make a good stop before the switching to a food scene in San Sebastián). The museum was spectacular, no doubt. I also found the city to be captivating with a sharp sense of steel age, somehow blended with a whiff of unfathomable nostalgia.

Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry, A Ship for Sail

My first close encounter with Frank Gehry was the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. I was a student at USC back then. Along with the high-rises on Grand Avenue, its shining silver scales accompanied my drive toward home, on numerous weekend nights after hotpot and milk boba tea in Monterey Park.

Despite four and half years of residency in L.A., I’ve never entered the structure. Once on a summer afternoon, I stood outside and examined how each metal plate of its outer skin interlocked with one another by tiny hoops and hooks; and pondering whether this whole trip was worth my effort — considering the extreme difficulty of finding a parking spot nearby (I enjoyed looking at it, nevertheless).

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao bear strikingly similar appearance to Walt Disney Concert Hall (needless to say, the former was the predecessor and what sent Gehry’s career on a fast-track). I believe it was almost exactly the same metal work for the outside shell, exuberant with the same cold shimmer.

On that particular day, Francis Bacon’s work was on exhibition. A huge poster with a disfigured portrait hang at the entrance, creating a surreal scene with steel, glass, and titanium.

Francis Bacon at Guggenheim Bilbao, Jan. 2017

Space inside the museum was not easy to comprehend. Almost devoid of any straight lines, constructional and decorative elements grows into each other, warps their forms, disappearing to places where the eye could not follow.

The atrium was organic, nicknamed “flower” by Gehry himself, served as the organizing center of the museum.

A Matter of Time, Richard Serra

It was absolute toil (although one willingly taken) to go through the whole collection (plus the temporary exhibitions). Almost an entire floor was dedicated to Richard Serra’s metal sheet sculptures. I’ve had the pleasure of being accompanied by two pieces his work in the past(Connector at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, and Carnegie outside the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh).

A Matter of Time at Bilbao, though immediately recognizable as Serra’s creation, was significantly different from Connector and Carnegie. While the latter two emphasized on verticality and upward motion, Time accentuated a sense of continuity and the passage from one state into another.

Most of Serra’s work were meant to be interacted with. Due to the immense scale of metal sheets, one can be disoriented while walking through Time. There seemed to be no end, and you soon forgot the beginning; until you are presented the termination of the experience, a sudden revelation or a somewhat anticipated outcome with subtle differences, just as the passage of time, or rather, life.

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time, 1994–2005, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Sketch, A huge spider at sunset, and it was cold

I spent the whole day in the museum and had two meals there (thanks to its cafe and restaurant). It was sunset when I got out. Orange light casted a very different mood onto the building. I found a place to sit down outside the lower entrance, and started to sketch on the back of a postcard. Art installations scattered around the complex: a monstrous spider, many shining spheres piled high, a bunch of tulips with tawdry metallic colors, a huge puppy covered in vegetation… Somehow they all blended in with one another.

I had to call it a day, as you just can’t ignore the chilling wind in the Basque country in January — more so when it was getting dark. I walked toward home (or, hotel), and looked back at the Guggenheim Museum. It was a huge sheep for sail alongside the Nervión River.

A sketch at sunset, the spider is out there.

The Rest of the City and My Incident on Speaking Spanish

The city had another museum, Museum of the Fine Arts. Although largely overshadowed by the fame of Guggenheim, it was worth a visit. Situated near a park, the view was different and pleasant. Needless to say, the collection was much more manageable.

On the day of the departure, I had to wait for an additional two hours for the bus to San Sebastián. To kill time, we veered off to a small roadside bar. Sitting at the counter, I skimmed through pintxos on display and ordered what I wanted. After some minor success, I decided to take my Spanish practice to another level. That is, instead of pointing and saying I want this or that, I wanted to do it the proper way.

“Quisiera una gilda, por favor.” The good-looking bartender smiled at me understandingly and nodded — they were always very pleased to see a foreigner attempt to speak in Spanish. I was pleased with myself as well.

Sometime later, she poured me a small glass of sherry. Sherry? I asked for a skewer with anchovy, pepper, and olive! Then I looked at the glass carefully, it says, La Guita. Then I pulled out my cellphone and looked up what a “Guita” was — sure enough, it was a brand of sherry wine.

So I drank the sherry, and was drowsy all the way to San Sebastián.

La Guita, not la gilda.