The long ramp from the city is guarded by a huge dog, protecting and guiding strangers down to the entrance around which are towers of stone and titanium like the protective armour of an armadillo. On the other side facing the river, a moat provides protection, with mystical mists and fiery flames blasting upwards to keep invaders away. In the moat a tall tower of silver balls rises up, reflecting images of the city and the river, while a huge bunch of coloured and mirrored tulips sits on the inside of the moat, similarly reflecting the buildings and the people around them. High above a huge red arc straddles the adjacent road bridge as it enters the city.
But wait; an invader is poised ready to pounce across to the edge of the moat? An enormous sinister spider with legs so tall that it could easily leap across the moat is searching for something, perhaps its family which is trapped in cells inside the building.
Jeff Koon’s huge “Puppy” (1992) has, for the past fifteen years, been welcoming visitors to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. A West Highland terrier with a coat of bedding plants which are changed three times a year, it is both awesome and welcoming and has become the ambassador of Bilbao. On the riverside are other permanent sculptures and installations: Yves Klein’s “Fire Fountain” (1961), Fujiko Nakaya’s “Fog Sculpture #08025 (F.O.G.)” (1998), Anish Kapoor’s “Tall Tree & The Eye” (2009), Jeff Koon’s “Tulips” (1995-2004) and Daniel Buren’s “Arcos Rojos” (2007) on the bridge.
The spider is Louise Bourgeois’ “Mamam” (1999), a permanent part of the Collection which this summer ilinks inside to Louise Bourgeois’ “Structures of Existence: The Cells”, the largest exhibition to date from the 60 architectural “Cells” which Bourgeois created over a period of twenty years, each of which tells a unique story with found objects, furniture, sculpture and textiles in a theatrical setting with references to her life and family. The exhibition fills the whole of the second floor of the Museum and could take a day to engage with and become immersed in.
Thirty years ago, the enterprising Basque government started to invest in cultural and infrastructure projects as the city docks fell into decline. The Euskalduna Conference Centre opened in 1999, the metro system was expanded with Norman Foster’s “Fosteritos” snaking up onto the streets, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum was renovated and extended in 2001-2 and the new Guggenheim Museum of modern and contemporary art opened in 1997.
The Euskalduna Conference Centre, a short distance away from the Guggenheim along the Nervion River, is brutalist with a dark rusting façade reminiscent of the hulls of the ships built on the dockyard which formerly occupied the site. In contrast, Frank Ghery’s Museum is light, playful, sculptural with a very simple concept of 19 exhibition galleries and other spaces of different sizes and shapes set around a central atrium where light and transparency are the keywords, a concept which he further developed and improved on at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris where the building is better connected to the water around it, external roof terraces were introduced and the restaurant is on the entrance floor with an adjacent external area, rather than being hidden on a mezzanine level. The curves on the exterior are intended to appear random, to catch the light and to provide views out to the river, the estuary and the surrounding hills with the atrium having the form of a flower.
Inside the largest gallery is Richard Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” (1994-2005) with Jenny Holzer’s digital “Installation for Bilbao” (1997) in an adjacent space. The Museum displays work from its permanent collection and holds a changing programme of major exhibitions. At the current time, in addition to Louise Bourgeois’ “Cells”, Andy Warhol’s massive work “Shadows” is on display – 102 silkscreened canvas panels with subtly changing forms and colours switching between negative and positive, organised by the Dia Art Foundation. Later in the year is an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work – another reason to visit the Museum again.