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Spiders, Rockstars and 'China Men' in Bilbao

FRANCE | Sunday, 28 June 2009 | Views [563]


We are sitting on a plane and leaving Europe behind us. Paul was very disappointed to make his last high speed train trip from Madrid to Bilbao on Wednesday. We were impressed that we got breakfast on the train. This is unusual for Spain for, after 2 weeks, we have finally worked out that the Spanish really don't have breakfast. In fact we thought it had taken us 2 weeks to work out the correct time to eat dinner, only to discover in Bilbao that we still hadn't worked it out.

Travelling to Bilbao by train, we realised that we were coming into some unique countryside for Spain. In contrast to the rest of the country, the city is surrounded by mountains and most the suburbs are spread out on hills surrounding the main part of the city. The vegetation is surprisingly green and lush. The houses are different and look like small chalets you would find in Switzerland, Germany or Austria. This region of Spain is Basque country and it has had a long history in a fight for independence from the rest of Spain. The people speak a different dialect that is more like an Eastern European language and they also appear more Eastern European. Another unique aspect of the trip was the train we were travelling on slowed to a mere 60 km/h rather than the 300 km/h we were used to travelling. We wound our way through the hills and the phone conversation I was having with my father in Australia had to be terminated and restarted several times due to lost connections. I had to explain that this was Spain, I was on a train and I wasn't being a temperamental 42 year old.

For the first and last time on our trip I was able to make the 200 metre trek from the station to our hotel. We have both sworn that we will never take packs on an European trip again. We have received some odd stares from people passing by; we are not quite sure if it is our age or our appearance that is causing the interest. Our hotel, another unique 2 star accommodation was in one of the cobbled streets of the old town. It did appear to look like a Swiss chalet, painted bright blue and yellow with balconies and flowerpots overlooking the street. The interior was crammed with unusual artifacts including a flock of huge paper mache sheep. We think they were supposed to contribute to the atmosphere of being in a Basque weavers workshop. There was also some very interesting attempts a 'non-objective art' in our room, including a board with an arrangement of nails hammered into it and a wooden ruler framed on the wall. However, the receptionist was very accommodating, chasing away a gaggle of children who were sitting on a couch in the cramped foyer playing hand held Nintendo games. She explained it was the first day of the school holidays for Summer. We explained that it was the same the world over.

Our main objective to visit Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum of Art. It has been a long held dream of mine to see this building since it was first opened in 2000. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this building you may have seen photographs of it down the end of a narrow European street. It is a building that looks like a giant twist of aluminium shavings. The building was designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry and has a lot of symbolism. It sits on the edge of the river and much of the landscape surrounding it has been renovated or built to fit in with the architecture. There are several bridges that have been built over the river that are graceful examples of contemporary design. The building also changes colour at different times of the day because of the light reflection. Outside, at regular intervals are art works such as fog sculptures and flames shooting up. I know that flame throwers are fairly standard occurrences outside the Crown Casino in Melbourne, but the fog sculpture by the same artist that is installed at the National Gallery in Canberra has never worked. There are walkways around the building so you can view it from all different angles. In front of the building, at the edge of the water, is a huge sculpture of a spider by French American artist Louise Bourgois. Paul saw an exhibition of her work when he was in New York and she now has become one of his favorite artists to question, next to Mark Rothko. The work is entitled 'Maman' and Bourgois work relates to her relationship with her mother and the men in her life. You can understand why Paul 'loves' this work so much.

The other side of the building has a work of Art that appeals much more to Paul's sentiments. The American artist Jeff Koons has installed his work 'Puppy'. 'Puppy' known as 'El Poop' in Spanish is a sculpture of a dog covered in blooming flowers. The flowers are growing and are embedded into a wire mesh that is watered regularly. The sculpture is as tall as the building and was installed initially in Sydney outside the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of a Jeff Koons exhibition. It is now permanently at the Guggenheim. This adds another attraction for visitors to the building. It appears that a giant sculpture of a dog created from flowers with the irreverant title of 'Poop' attracts the Spanish. Maybe they fail to see the contradiction in their title and the scent of the work. This is what Koons intended in the titling of the piece in Spanish and what contemporary art provokes. Prior to the Guggenheim being built there was not a lot to see in Bilbao apparently. The museum has revitalised the city and there is a lot of public sculpture and buildings that are now situated in the city. Bilbao has now become a city for conferences and exhibitions. The idea of flower gardens as sculpture has definitely caught on and there was an exhibition of designed art installation gardens scattered around the city that were also very interesting to look at. They combined industrial materials such as steel, wood and glass with plants. One garden even had acacias, bottle brushes and kangaroo paw growing.

I had heard that the exhibitions in the Guggenheim was not as impressive as the exterior architecture. Despite the 3rd floor being closed for exhibition installation the other two floors provided some interesting interpretations of contemporary art. I filled with dread when I saw that there was a floor devoted to Video Art from the collection as I considered that Paul would not be entirely enthralled to watch 2 hours of an artist pretending he was Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the rock group Nivana performing from the grave, or watch Japanese artist Mori Murakuri filmed lying in a glass bubble in the middle of Times Square for 10 hours or a group of Chinese factory workers performing ballet in their factory in provincial China, and what made it more daunting was the fact that I would have to explain the meaning of it all to him. You will also have to read my postscript for further significance regarding one of these works. I can barely understand some of this work myself, let alone explain it. However, there was the usual helpful audio guide with the well travelled English lady with the BBC voice that has been with us throughout the galleries of Europe to explain it to him. He did particularly enjoy the 'contemporary moving portrait' of Zandi the Rio Madrid soccer player filmed playing a match against Manchester United. The artist has shot a full game of footage of the one player on several cameras and then edited it down to a 2 ½ hour feature film. Thankfully Paul wasn't that enthralled that we had to stay the 2 hours.

On the second floor was an exhibition of Contemporary artists Cai Guo-Qiang who was educated in China under the cultural revolution but has been living in Japan and the USA since 1985. QJiang's work is quite unique as he creates large installations using gun powder. He was also responsible, unsurprisingly, for the firework presentations at the Opening and Closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. It was interesting to see videos of him creating his works with the assistance of an army of workers. He pours the gunpowder onto the canvas, lights it and then everyone runs and stamps the flames out. To watch the documentaries without knowing this information you would think it was just a group of Chinese factory workers dangerously experimenting in the making of pyrotechnic displays. Perhaps something I should try with my students. The artist had also created several special installations for the Guggenheim exhibition, including a room full of life size clay figures based on a famous work used by the Communist party as propaganda in China. More interesting in than the work was the comment we overheard from two middle aged Australian ladies, clearly visiting a contemporary art gallery for the first time; “Look Beryl, there's a room full of China Men, look you can tell by their eyes”. They were clearly on a whirlwind tour as no sooner than we heard the Australian accent, they were off down the corridor scurrying to the safety of their tour bus.

The last hours of our time in Europe was filled with a series of odd events. We decided to post a number of books and documents home that were weighing down our luggage. We successfully did this by conducting the whole event at the post office in 2 languages which were not Spanish; French and English with a postal worker who was from the Congo. In all we sent 8 kg of books home, now our packs are much lighter and Paul is prepared for his shopping sprees in London and Toronto.

We also tried to dine at what we thought was a respectable hour in Bilbao. Eating in this city is slightly different to the rest of Spain. Tapas bars are a feature of the city and you can get food in small piles and a drink any time of the day or night. Including breakfast and very early morning. The first night we went to a recommended bar in the square of the city. The waiter decided what we were eating and proceeded to bring out four dishes in quick succession and the whole meal was finished in 20 minutes. This was completed at 9.30 pm, early for Spain. We looked around only to find that a bar that was packed 20 minutes previously was empty and the wait staff were packing up around us. So the following evening we decided to eat at 8 pm at the next restaurant at the square recommended by the hotel. We sat down to order, only to be told that we were too early. The bar was packed but there was a queue of diners waiting for the bar to clear so they could be seated to eat. However, the food was fantastic and I had the best piece of fish I have had in Europe. Bilbao is right near the Atlantic ocean so the seafood is a specialty.

So now after 4 hours leaving Bilbao by plane we are flying back over it again. Our flight has taken us from Bilbao to Madrid where we stopped over for an hour, and now we are on our way to London. Paul is marvelling at the fact that we are travelling probably slower by air than we were on the train. I want to know then why trains don't fly. We have also realised why train travel in Spain is so good as plane travel tends to be somewhat disorganised. You also get service on the train in Spain, as what you get on a plane elsewhere and on a plane you get no service as you do on a train in Australia. It is also quicker on the train.

Therefore after letting Paul loose on the galleries of Spain he is about to let me loose in the London transport museum and any other aviation or transport shrine he can discover in the next week. We will be on to eating fish and chips and Indian food and can farewell the tasty breads, olives and cheese of the continent. Adios Spain! Good morning Britain!

P.S. On arriving in London we learned that Michael Jackson had died on Thursday 25 May. At the time of his death we were watching an artist's footage of the singer performing the moonwalk on deliberately disintegrating film footage. It was screened in the same footage as that of Kurt Cobain and the lead singer of the 1980s band Joy Division. At that point the only singer of the 3 alive was Jackson and therefore the artist was making a point that he had survived all these years yet the other 2 artists had both died under uncertain circumstances. The artist will now have to update his work accordingly. We thought it quite ominous.

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