Big, Sexy Art at the Guggenheim Bilbao

Seventh in a series of trip reports about Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

Our Saturday in Bilbao was a sensory experience, beginning with the provocations of the Guggenheim Bilbao‘s exhibitions and ending up thoroughly sated by a gustatory extravaganza at Erneko Atxa’s three-star Michelin restaurant, Azurmendi.

Facing a strong breeze, Collette and I set out about 10 a.m. for the Guggenheim. Below us on the Nervion, “double-wide” crew boats were rowing briskly, aided by the wind at their backs. A runner in a fluorescent jacket passed us on the broad river promenade.

Nervion river, Bilbao

The Guggenheim was pretty quiet when we entered to the jaw-dropping three-story art installation by Ernesto Neto. Elongated orbs resembling sheep scrotum were massed above us.

Children gaze up at the art piece on rolling observation beds

Children gaze up at the art piece on rolling observation beds

The museum interpretive signs explained that Neto believes works “should be entered, inhabited, felt, and even smelled, thereby allowing spectators to experience their own bodies…. While the mind can lie, the body cannot.”

Before exploring the rest of the Neto exhibition on the second floor, we explored Richard Serra’s giant elliptical sculptures on the first floor. Dwarfing the people who wandered in and out of the curving metal forms, the audio guide warned that some visitors might feel disoriented. I could see why. Looking ahead in his rust-colored spiral, I felt slightly dizzy as I lost visual sight of the ceiling and navigated the curving path through the walls, which lean outward and then inward.

Serra’s work, which is on permanent display (how could it be moved?), is a mystery of geometry, at least to someone like me who is no whiz. His sculptures create a plane between two ovals of different sizes but identical radii. (Confused? Join the crowd.)

Taking the glass elevator to the third floor – enjoying the changing perspective on Neto’s lobby installation – we disembarked into a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s “art.” That’s “art” in quotes like I used “music” in quotes to describe some of my son’s musical interests when he was an adolescent. She certainly doesn’t limit her form of expression: music, sculpture, body-sized bags of fabric (meant to inhabit, thus turning the spectator into a performer), visual images and a labyrinth ending in a telephone booth. Call me a rube but most of it was boring.

The special exhibition by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, in contrast, fully captured the imagination. Provocative and even humorous, the visitors who seemed to enjoy it most fully were those who were least reserved – the many children who visited the museum on this particular Saturday. I’m sure the kids didn’t understand the point of the giant serpentine pathway that was constructed of crocheted ropes suspended from the ceiling; the interpretive sign explained that it is intended to represent the spermatozoa connecting to the ovum. Watching the kids navigate the bouncy structure (visitors were invited to climb up and through it) reminded me of crossing the pontoon bridge on Tom Sawyer’s island at Disneyland.

The title of Neto’s exhibit is “The Body That Carries Me,” and individual works have titles like “Life Is A Body We Are Part Of” (the elevated spermatozoa/ovum piece), “Eating With The Eyes” (close up photos of sculptures that the artist explained had begun to “dance with one another, showing their sex and libido”), and “Candy Man Candy.” This latter installation was like an Exploratorium for children. Kids banged away on instruments provided for that purpose, creating a din. As for the promised “smelled” part of the exhibition, more elongated spheres were hung inside a mesh tent punctured by sleeves that allowed outsiders to reach in and insiders to reach out. The spheres, if you touched them, left red-brown dust on your hands; if you smelled it, you realized the dust was ground cloves. Best smelling exhibit ever!

Our senses fully engaged, we caught a taxi in front of the Guggenheim – pausing briefly for a picture by the giant flower-covered “Puppy” (pronounced poopy). Off we went for our gustatory adventure at Azurmendi.

Puppy, Guggenheim Bilbao

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