With the freedom to be entirely reckless, for now, at least, before the next adventure in our lives kicks in, Mrs. Monkey decided at 4 days notice to join me in Bilbao. So, I thought, I shall hand over the reins of the blog to my wife… for one day only. 😅 Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Monkey……………..
We are not, by nature nor history, city dwellers, Al and I, but some of our most memorable adventures have been city breaks. Paris, Berlin, New York, Istanbul have all hosted us in years gone by, offering up their unique blend of art, architecture and culture to the inquiring mind. And so it was the lure of a weekend in Bilbao with the promise of exceptional contemporary art that spurred me to book a flight and change Al’s single room reservation to a double. My only accommodation requirement was access to a washing machine; Al’s 18 days of handwashing a single T-shirt threatened to cast a pongy shadow over our romantic reunion on Spain’s northern shore.
So, Bilbao. Such a lovely sound to roll around your tongue. It has long lived on the perimeter of our travel rug as somewhere we were destined to see. The draw, of course, was the Guggenheim but more of that in due course. The city itself sits inland from the Bay of Biscay, on the river Nervión which curls sinuously around the old and newer districts with steep green hills rising up around it. The earliest reference to Bilbao appears in Shakespeare’s play the Merry Wives of Windsor where swords were described as ‘bilboes’,a nod to the iron forges of the then small town. Rich in natural ore, the city flourished through the industrial revolution and then slumped into post industrial decline after WWII. It would have become just another dying city had it not been for the decision to build the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on the site of an old timber dock.
The iconic building was designed by architect Frank Gerhy to be a sculpture in its own right both inside and out. With barely a straight line, the building’s glass, steel and stone surfaces sweep in grand curves, jutting and leaning into each other. The entrance is guarded by a giant puppy by Jeff Koons, clothed in summer with riotous bedding plants whilst the riverside terrace is home to these outsize buds as well as the more famous spider.
The art inside is challenging – no pretty paintings here, but huge installation pieces in neon, rubber or metal. The two temporary exhibitions were contrasting in style yet linked by themes of persecution and struggle. The early work of Marc Chagall captures his Russian Jewish heritage as his distinctive colour saturated, dreamlike style evolved. The the ‘China – what next’ exhibition showed through multi media pieces the contradictions of modern China, welcoming the world to the 2008 Olympics yet closing down Ai WeiWei’s Twitter feed to silence his protests.
The most chilling piece was a silent video of workers at the Osram light bulb factory, young women hunched over piles of tiny resistors, straightening and assembling them, each movement repeated thousands of times each day. It reminded me of accounts of Henry Ford’s car plant in 1920s America, where production was broken down into the most efficient task capable of being performed by a man with just one arm. Human beings reduced to machines, all free will and imagination designed out in the interests of maximum profit.
Back in the sunshine, and the city is settling into the slower rhythms of a Sunday afternoon, adults recovering from the excesses of Saturday night which just happened to be the city’s birthday celebration. We weaved our way through the happy crowds in the old city streets the night before in search of a restaurant – surprisingly hard to find in the middle of a giant street party. The crowds were good natured, dancing in the road, all ages playing and partying. At last we triumphed, a tiny table for two in a Texmex-Japanese-Spanish bar. The meal that followed sums up modern Bilbao, an intoxicating, always surprising fusion of sensations. So, if its not there already, add this city to your bucket list.