DER October 9
This morning the National Geographic Explorer docked on the outskirts of Bilbao, Spain. Just before daybreak, we disembarked to the sounds of a Basque accordionist at the port and made our way down the River Nervion to the Guggenheim Museum of Contemporary Art. Bilbao, once famous for its shipyards, iron and steel—Shakespeare mentioned the town in Hamlet and the Merry Wives of Windsor–has been reinventing itself as the world’s center of contemporary architecture, with Frank Gehry’s museum as its centerpiece. After many days of exploring towns with gorgeous medieval buildings, it was exciting and refreshing to see that humans are still capable of wonderful architecture.
All the top architects in the world now want to make a statement in Bilbao. On the way to the Guggenheim, we saw many new and not-quite-finished shopping centers, skyscrapers, convention centers, hotels, university libraries, and other developments planned by Pritzker Prize- winning architects, including Cesar Pelli, Zaha Hadid, Arata Isizaki, Alvaro Siza, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Jean Nouvel, among others. It’s amazing to see a city that allows architects free rein with their imaginations, full of sweeping expanses, unexpected lines, and delightful shapes, and which has been experiencing an economic boom as a result, attracting millions of tourists and conferees.
At the Guggenheim, Jeff Koon’s “Puppy,” the 12-meter-tall West Highland terrier, was in full bloom even getting shaggy with its 50,000 flowers (the Puppy is in danger of becoming an even more important icon of Bilbao than the museum). The museum itself—a successful $100 gamble by the city to bring in tourists, opened in 1997–is startling and splendid with its curvilinear walls made of fish-scale titanium and limestone. The building is a massive computer-designed sculpture with an astonishing 55-meter-high glass atrium.
Many people say that the museum is more important than the art it houses, but while the building may be fabulous, it has some equally impressive pieces of modern architecture. Richard Serra’s massive The Matter of Time, completed in 2005 and a site-specific creation for the museum, is an astonishing statement about the nature of space, sculpture itself, and sound. Walking through the seven sculptures, with their curving walls, narrowing spaces, and changing angles, makes one feel at times like walking through a medieval maze of a town. The sculptures challenge your perceptions of space, and create a sense of motion and movement as you walk through them.
We missed the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit by days, but were able to see Jenny Holzer’s cascading neon piece, putting words of love, heartbreak and loss in the idiom of information, advertising, and impersonal information. The exhibit of contemporary photographers was also a highlight, such as Vik Muriz’s huge photographs of delicate portraits etched in dirt and trash, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s time-lapse photos of entire films shot in drive-in theatres. Sophie Calle exhibited one of her complicated games, “The Shadow,” in which she had herself followed by a detective to present “photographic evidence of my existence,” and also photos of the spaces where the Flinck and Vermeer paintings used to be exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, before they were stolen in 1990, with reflections from people who work in the museum about the images.
After our morning visit to the Guggenheim, we made our way to an overlook of the town, and back to the ship, where, once again at sea, we enjoyed Spanish tapas (boquerones, chorizo, lomo, manchego cheese) and wine (Rueda, Toro) on the aft deck. Que rico!