10 and a half years ago, I went to the Guggenheim in New York and was underwhelmed to say the least. I know most people like it - as evidenced by the fact my paltry 3 star rating on here didn't do anything to dent the 5 star average coming from everyone else - but to me it just didn't measure up to the Met, the MOMA or the Frick. I didn't come to Bilbao for the Guggenheim as some people might...I came because Easyjet wanted me to, tempting me with cheap returns from Manchester. But since the gallery is pretty much the icon of the city, I decided to give it another shot.
Located on the banks of the Río Nervión, the Guggenheim was built in 1997 in what is now recognised as a successful attempt to regenerate the city, though I'm sure Easyjet also helped. The curved titanium building, designed by Frank Gehry, is at least as impressive as its contents, and indeed you can get a good start on your sightseeing / photo taking before you head inside. On the waterside is Maman, a deceptively docile name for a 30ft high spider whose relations you might know from the Tate Modern or, if you're more of a world traveller, from Kansas City, St Petersburg, Ottawa, Tokyo, Seoul or Doha. It's a striking structure against the backdrop of the water on one side and the metallic gallery roof on the other, and can be visited even when the museum is shut (great if you've cruised into town on a Monday). Up higher at an elevated street level is an equally massive but much more welcoming figure, Jeff Koons' 'Flower Puppy'. Originally designed as a temporary being for the opening, locals petitioned to keep it and have since adopted it very much as the symbol of the city, begging the question of what on earth they had on mugs and plates and t-shirts and post cards and keyrings before he came along.
Puppy is useful as a navigation point because he marks the main entrance - otherwise you could be walking the long way round to find the way in. My guide book shows a picture of a snaking queue of people clammering to get in, so with this in mind (and because we're early risers) we were there for 10am when it opened. It was a Tuesday and I also wondered if that might make it busier, with those on poorly timed mini breaks wanting to squeeze it in before departing. Knowing full well everything would be shut on a Monday, we booked a 5 night stay in the city and allocated that day for shopping, but not everyone plans accordingly. So yes, we were there at 10am, and the doors were open but there was no line, so we walked down the oddly sized steps to the entrance, politely walked up and down the empty lines as directed by the ropes, and got our tickets. This is by far the most expensive thing to see/do in Bilbao, and we paid $11 per adult, being in that dubious period of years where I'm no longer a student but she's not quite an old aged pensioner. Discounts are available for both those groups, and you can also get a combined ticket for her and the Bellas Artes museum, but we knew that was free on Wednesdays so planned to go then instead. Almost every museum in Bilbao has a 'museum day' with free entry on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. The Guggenheim does not.
Included in the price were audio guides, though we had to ask for these - oddly the other visitors arriving were given them automatically. Tell the cashier your language, and they'll set it for you, then you just have to listen to an intro about the gallery and how to use the thing, and you're good to go.
So, the art. There really isn't much but at first you don't notice because the building's quite fancy and the architecture deserves a second glance. We left the main hall for the ground floor exhibition space which is currently almost entirely devoted to the work of Richard Serra, an American sculptor who likes big sheets of metal. By big I mean huge - 14 feet high, weighing 200+ tons, that kind of thing. The first one was an adventure - we walked round and round trying to get to the middle of a circle, without the thrill/danger of being in a maze and having the option of getting lost. After that they became, dare I say it, a little repetitive. You can't really appreciate them from ground level, though we later discovered a 2nd floor balcony that gives a much better overview.
We moved on. 'The Inverted Mirror' is on display until September 2012. It contains, the info leaflet tells me, works from 52 artists, though the one thing I didn't see was an inverted mirror - a few very flattering tilted mirrors, sure, but nothing that I would class as inverted. It did have some fun things though. Three precariously balanced oil drums were apparently a metaphor for the economy, though whether Europe's finances were oily and sticky, or just precarious, I'm not sure. Massive canvases made from old army beds had an equally potent message, though it escapes me now. The audio tour was terribly enlightening, if only for the pretentious back stories for the works that sounded far too far fetched, almost as if someone had made them up to add depth and meaning what was, for all intents and purposes, just a nice piece of art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres' strip of light bulbs was pretty but no more 'art' in some ways than the neon pink gloves turned inside out on the hotel desk across the room from me as I write this, and yet there was a back story to his piece that went on....and on.
Upstairs the answer to the question '¿Qué será?' was surprisingly...a bit more Serra, this time with Brâncuşi, a Romanian sculptor who Serra visited in the 1960s. The combined exhibition is a bit more of the same for Serra including the 'House of Cards' which was a revelation for him, the first time he realised that instead of leaning things against walls he could...lean them against each other. "The transitive verb 'to prop'", the audio guide proudly told us. For all he inspired Serra, Brâncuşi's work here is quite different with a distinctly African theme. Wooden carvings include a token totem pole and a Adam/Eve hybrid with clear sexual overtones that you don't need the audio guide to detect (spoiler alert: she has balls).
After this excitement, nothing else was that memorable. The permanent exhibition includes a range of installations from artists across the world. One cluster features industrial materials - burlap sacks full of coal mounted on the wall, British slate arranged in a round, crop-circle-esque. The maps on the wall weren't that helpful and we almost missed these, only stumbling across them when we were looking for the loos.
In all we were there almost 2 hours, and the place was definitely getting more crowded with tour groups and school parties as we left. The museum has a shop that spans 3 floors and sells Puppy magnets, Puppy posters, Puppy bookmarks and a few non-Puppy items too. There's also an (expensive) restaurant and a cafeteria. There's free wifi in the building, useful for those essential 'look how cultured I am' Facebook or Foursquare check ins...
I am a bit suspicious of galleries which feature more temporary exhibitions than permanent ones, and this one has done nothing to lessen my scepticism. An interesting place to visit but you wouldn't want to rush back and while there are other museums I'd be a regular at if I lived in the city (like the Bellas Artes) this would never be one of them, even if it were free. It's not a good sign when the best bits about an art gallery are the flower dog and metal spider outside, so for me it's simply another mediocre 3* Guggenheim to tick off the bucket list.