November 27, 2012 – Are You My Maman?
Art is weird. Powerful. Destructive. Edifying. Surprising. Distressful. Inspiring. I wish I could remember the first piece of art that drew me out of reality and into imagination. Or out of imagination and into reality. Because art can spark an idea, a story, a dream, a nightmare. Where did the love of art begin in me? When did a form first make me cry? Or laugh. Or say, “Good god! What the hell is that?” What is it about a painting or a sculpture or a building that can draw me across countries with magnetic force? How is it that color can stop me in my tracks, make me do a double take, induce me to return for another look? When did I become so susceptible to lines and forms that I allowed them to imprint themselves on my mind? Or get them inked on my skin?
I’ve come to Bilbao specifically to see Louis Bourgeois’s Maman sculpture. And I’m thrilled by it. I’d cross any other number of seas to visit her. I’d even endure another cruise trip to get to this end point (I think). I’m captivated by long legs. Entranced with the marble eggs set inside the metallic sac. Possibly obsessed. I’ve ranted before about how this sculpture for me symbolizes embracing fear and seeing the good in what is often deemed as terrifying. (Spiders are good for the world!) I’ve gone so far in my art appreciation as to have Maman tattooed on my right ankle. It still surprises me. I never thought I’d get one. Yet, here I am, there it is. Several people have asked me what my tattoo stands for and I always warn them saying, “It’s a long story.” Because it is. It’s about art, fear, beauty, connection to my sisters and sister-in-law, death, motherhood and spiders. Sure, Maman is a statue, but it’s also an idea, a dream, a memory, a hope. Maman in some strange way acts as a reconciliation between having a nurturing nature and my lack of desire to be a mother. It’s a reminder for me to do the things that frighten me. It’s also just a really cool piece of art.
Being here in Bilbao and seeing Maman in person is like living a life out of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but one in which all the endings are good.
Seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is like the icing on the arachnid cake. I hate to admit that I’m not really up on architecture and I don’t even know who Frank Gehry is. But I look him up after my friend Erin says, “I’ve always wanted to see a Frank Gehry building up close”, and find out that he’s perhaps “the most important architect of our age” according to Vanity Fair.
When I get my audio guide at the museum and start my tour of the Guggenheim I’m informed that “every surface curves,” that Gehry “draws with a free association,” and that “robots cut and shaped the panels” because of the mathematical problems Gehry’s design made impossible for humans to solve by their own handiwork. I fall in love with Frank Gehry just a little when the voice tells me, “Frank Gehry has always found inspiration in fish” (how could I not love someone who finds inspiration there!), and that I’ll “notice the fish motif throughout the building.”
It’s an incredible place. Where has architecture been all my life? I find myself looking for the fish motif (and finding it) everywhere and not once do I find a surface, not even in the bathroom, that doesn’t curve. There’s a compelling comfort in the glasswork, stairways, windows and walls. There is a warmth in the curvature, an inviting sensualness in the concavities, a deceptive softness to the titanium outer walls.
As if Maman wasn’t enough. As if the Guggenheim wasn’t enough. Then there are the exhibits.
Off to the right of the main foyer, there’s a giant room dedicated to Richard Serra’s huge rust covered steel constructs in his exhibit called The Matter of Time. There are plaques along the walls and a side room with videos, drawings, to-scale models and long-winded explanations. Serra says, “[The Matter of Time] is the idea of multiple or layered temporalities.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but I do know that walking through the objects is fun. I skip most of the reading and just head from one construct to the other. Each one is a different shape, has “torqued ellipses, spirals, spheres, toruses” and is supposed to “engender the spatial continuum of their environment.” Serra likes to talk about his art with words like that. I like to interact with interactive art. Instead of trying to make sense of his descriptions, I wonder what it’d be like to sing from the inside of one of these (would there be a bell-like echo?). To run. To see if the differing space from top to bottom, from side to side would make me dizzy, giddy, or temporally changed. But there are too many cameras with their eyes on me, too many people around. I keep myself in check and act like a respectable art-appreciating adult (on the outside).
In another room, a small and cozy room, 1200 black and white photographs line the walls and are lit by free hanging, differing leveled, bare-faced light bulbs. Only ten people are allowed in the room at a time and I stand behind the line waiting for the attendant to wave me in. The exhibit is called Humans and is by the photographer, painter, sculptor and installation artist Christian Boltanski. When permission is granted, I enter the room with a tentative step. Some of the bulbs hang so low I have to weave carefully between them to stand up close to the walls or to move from one side to the other. The dim, glowing incandescent lights give the exhibit a fragile and sad aura. The pictures are of faces. Twelve hundred different faces. “Our faces,” Boltanski says, “are collages of the dead.” I want to look at each one. To see the expressions, to look into the eyes of the past, to gaze at the faces of people I’ll never know. To try and imagine what “fleeting experience” these photographs have captured. What lives they must have lived. What histories, what joys, what pain, what glory. But there are too many, and I can’t grasp one face to keep forever in my memory, they blend and meld and fade. This exhibit is, the voice from my hand held guide tells me, “a vanitas – a reminder of the ever-changing nature of the world and the brevity of our time in it.”
Even this viewing feels like a vanitas; sobering, beautiful, and full of stories I’ll never hear.
So much of art is sad.
So much of art is disconcerting.
Take, for instance, Mona Hatoum’s Home. Hatoum has taken common kitchen items like a colander, cheese grater, and a meat mallet and added electrical current to them “making them lethal to touch.” I stand on the safe side of a wire fence, mesmerized as the electricity surges, bringing the metal to life in a sort of horrific way. Hatoum’s added the element of sound to the scene by amplifying the buzz of electricity through speakers mounted on the wall. The exhibit is intriguing, macabre, sinister and delightful. She’s changed useful things into dangerous ones.
Maybe use is always dangerous.
The simple fence is all that separates me from death. From that fatal impulse to touch. To touch things. To touch art. To have a tactile sense of the unsafe.
It’s art as instability.
Changing comfort into menace
menace into comfort
is the trick of art
of bends and curves
lines and shadows
shapes and images.
In all its disconcerting statements about the traditional role of women, of use, of domesticity, of comfort and of danger it’s one of my favorite works of art within these walls. I don’t know what that says about me.
And then I get to Egon Schiele. Egon Schiele was influenced by Gustav Klimt and the Viennese Jugendstil and had a sad view of the world. “Everything is dead while it lives,” he said. His art is vivid, colorful, nude, bony, sallow, grieving, beautiful, plaintive and full of unflattering self-portraits. I love it.
What would art be without a reaction?
Outside, from the patio, I can see Maman. The air is refreshing. This museum, though less frantic than the ones I visited in Italy, still has so much to absorb. Art, Guggenheim style, takes all sorts of shapes and forms. In the shallow pool of water next to the museum are five fountains conceptualized by Yves Klein. They’re fire fountains and every night, gigantic flames shoot up in glory at timed intervals from early dusk until just after dark. The museum plaque says that the Five Fountains were his “most ambitious work in fire.” Yves Klein did a lot of work with fire. He did a lot of work in blue. He was also a black belt in Judo. The Five Fountains were fabricated for the Guggenheim in 1997, thirty something years after Klein’s death. I bet he’d have liked to have seen this controlled explosion of heat and light for himself.
So is fog. Fujiko Nakaya’s Water Fog is a permanent feature of the museum since 1998. But Nakaya has been working with fog since the 1970s. She’s also the first artist to ever use fog as a medium. If that’s not greatness then I’m not sure what is. At various points of the day, a film of fog shape-shifts over the bridge, hugs up against the side of the museum, evaporates into the open air and billows around the visitors who find themselves in its way. It’s art in motion, in disorientation, in fog.
Back inside, I see the LED sign columns by Jenny Holzer the American Conceptual artist. The front face streams phrases and words in blue and red, in English and Spanish. The back face gives the same words in Basque—the forbidden language. I don’t understand it at all, but I don’t think that’s the point. I understand exactly what it means.
Art is strange that way.
I take a look around. Stretch my neck back to see upwards into the heights of Gehry’s building. Twist to gaze back into the rooms I’ve been in, at the artistry I’ve encountered today. I’m surrounded by words like oeuvre, overt, line, structure, form, allegorical encounters, solids and voids, ephemera, motif in this fishlike building that feels like it could be a home. I feel full.
Not so far away, through the double doors, down the steps, and across the bridge, a giant spider waits for me.
I’m going that way soon. I can’t stay away.
How many perfect days do you think one person is allotted in life? Is there a limit? I’ve had so many lately, and this one takes a spot at the top. I don’t want them to ever stop. But, if I have used them up, it was worth every second to have had today.