Bilbao: The city built on acid

Art and architecture in Bilbao, Spain make one feel at once alien and close to home.

Ashley Dresser

While wandering around the Basque city of Bilbao, I must check my eyes in a mirror or storefront window at least five times a day. I ask myself, quite seriously: Am I high? Did Vascili, my lovable, but drug-addled Greek roommate, put âÄòshrooms in the Spanish omelet again? And then I will turn to the women next to me: âÄúDid you see that? Was that really a giant puppy made of flowers sitting along the waterfront âÄî like some kind of technicolor Godzilla: are we under attack?!âÄù âÄúTranquilo,âÄù she says. âÄúThatâÄôs Puppy. ItâÄôs art, vale? It was done by sculptor Jeff Koons in 1992.âÄù SheâÄôs the snooty Spanish type âÄî tight black bun of hair and ridiculously ornate umbrella. (Seriously, who invests in things that are going to get wet?) âÄúAnd did you know,âÄù she continues, âÄúin 1997, when Puppy first came to Bilbao, three gardeners attempted to plant explosives in the flower pots before its unveiling? Can you imagine?âÄù I could imagine it perfectly. Bilbao is most definitely the city where anything is possible. I used to be befuddled by the art in Minneapolis. What kind of city takes pride in a giant spoon and cherry? Or how about that Guthrie? If by âÄúremarkableâÄù youâÄôre referring to how closely its exterior resembles an oversized IKEA store, then yes, remarkable indeed: the things that we can be fooled into calling beautiful. But oh, beloved Minneapolis, youâÄôll have to step aside because Bilbao definitely takes the cake. They have bridges made out of what appears to be fishing wire and recalled Lego pieces. They have a giant cast iron spider creeping along the River Nervion. And yesterday, on my way to the Plaza Moyua, I stumbled across what could only be described as a park for lampposts. There were at least 15 of them, all different sizes and styles. Some were old and finely decorated âÄî the kind of thing you would see in a Charles Dickens novel âÄî but most them were bland, straight from American suburbia. Yet what were they doing here, in this park, displayed as art? Are Bilbaons really that stupid? I can honestly say, IâÄôm starting to worry and I havenâÄôt even made it to the Guggenheim yet. Well, I have, but I didnâÄôt realize I was at the world famous art museum when I arrived. Thoroughly intoxicated, I got lost on my way back to my flat one night and discovered a giant piece of crumpled aluminum spread across the River Nervion. âÄúOh my god âĦâÄù I moaned. âÄúThatâÄôs the Weisman Art Museum. IâÄôm so drunk I walked myself back to Minneapolis; what am I going to do? I have to teach English in Spain tomorrow!âÄù It wasnâÄôt true, of course. I had been standing in front of the Guggenheim Art Museum. One of five Guggenheim museums across the world, this one looks exactly like a larger version of our Weisman. It makes sense; they both were built by the same architect, Frank O. Gehry. People like to joke that the Weisman was GehryâÄôs practice model for building the far more impressive Guggenheim of Bilbao, but I think heâÄôs lazy. If youâÄôve seen any of his other work, youâÄôll realize that he just keeps building the same thing over and over again, except bigger. (See Walt Disney Concert Hall or Experience Music Project in Seattle.) In the same way that our art venues tend to define Minneapolis, the Guggenheim definitely represents Bilbao. Bilbao used to be a dirty, industrial city, but the introduction of the museum is credited for making it into a haven of culture and art. Yet the transition is comical, if anything. The River Nervion still stinks. Old, defaced buildings stand next to futuristic, space age apartments made of glass and perverted angles. And a park for lampposts âÄî seriously, what were they thinking? The city built while on acid âÄî or literally, in acid rain? You tell me. I havenâÄôt gone to the Guggenheim yet. ItâÄôs really expensive. I used to work at the Weisman, though, so IâÄôm hoping they have some kind of free pass for friends of Frank Gehry. I just want to talk to the people that work there, anyway. I want to know if the Guggenheim has the same secret passageways as the Weisman and if they climb on the roof and watch the city at night, like we did. I guess itâÄôs a stupid question. ItâÄôs like asking someone who works at a different McDonaldâÄôs than you do if they make fries too. The lesson here, kids âÄî aside from the fact that Bilbao is a mad, mad city âÄî is that the more you travel, the more you realize that everybody really is the same. For example, I donâÄôt even want to visit the Guggenheim right now. For the next six months, the main exhibit is the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. ItâÄôs funny: you travel halfway across the world in search of something new, because your beatâÄôs so boring back home. But what you often end up finding is relief in knowing that everyone else is interested in you. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]