“Build the anchovy and they will come!”, I proudly proclaimed in broken Spanish, standing in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum. Gabriel, strapped to my chest on a baby carrier, happily stretched out his arms and joined the ensemble. ─ “Anchovy, anchovy!”. Jules looked puzzled. ─ “Don’t you mean the artichoke?”. I did mean the artichoke. Once again, my decades-long mix-up of artichokes and anchovies was causing me grief. This time, instead of getting the wrong pizza order, I was comparing the Guggenheim building to a fish rather than to a leafy vegetable, like the Bilbao residents affectionally do.
In any case, they did come. Up until the seventies, shipbuilding and steel production had brought prosperity to Bilbao. But the city neglected to adapt to a changing world, and the outdated dockyards and factories dwindled into abandonment. Many left, and those that decided to stay faced unemployment and a climbing crime rate.
In the nineties, city officials made a bold decision: instead of doubling-down on the efforts to modernise the maritime industries that had once propelled the city into prosperity, they would instead turn in into a cultural mecca. They approached the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and proposed to fund a new Guggenheim museum, erected on the grounds of the now derelict dockyards.
Critics were aplenty and oddly eclectic, including both shipbuilders and artists that saw the Guggenheim as a symbol of cultural imperialism. But the daring plan worked. People around the world flocked to Bilbao to witness the artichoke that had turned an industrial slumber into a cultural hotspot.
The Cinderella-like transformation was quickly dubbed the “Bilbao effect”. Many tried to imitate it – Guggenheim alone received more than 130 proposals from other cities – but most failed miserably. Ten years later, the Wall Street Journal called it instead the “Bilbao anomaly”, as no one was quite sure how the small Spanish city had pulled it off.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its success is the fact that the Guggenheim building is merely the titanium-cladded epicentre of an entire city that has been transformed into a modern art museum. As we walked around this giant open sky exhibit, a trio of art pieces caught our eye. Jules and I had the exact same reactions to this triptych, while Gabriel – never one to follow – brought something different into the discussion.
‘Egeria’, by Joana Vasconcelos
“Monster?”, asked a suspicious Gabriel, poking up a stubby finger towards the gigantic sculpture. Made of woollen crochet, it crawled up the cavernous central hall of the Guggenheim museum and extended its tentacles into the various nooks and crannies of the building. The voluptuous and colourful lines of the sculpture clashed with the jagged and colourless walls of the museum, but it was hard to imagine one without the other.
This piece, meant to symbolise the occupation of museums by women, was not our first run-in with Joana Vasconcelos’ work. When Jules and I got married, we spent our honeymoon at a hotel that had one of her pieces at the lobby, a giant Cinderella slipper made out of pots and pans.
Years later, we saw another one of her tongue-in-cheek works, a floor-to-ceiling chandelier built from tampons. Hung at a ceremonial room at the Ajuda Palace, the setting would steal a smile even from the staunchest antifeminist.
‘Maman’, by Louise Bourgeois
“Mommy, monster?”, asked again Gabriel, this time peeking at the giant spider from behind Jules’ legs. “Depends on how you look at it. ‘Maman’ actually means mommy in French”, I cut in. Neither Gabriel nor Jules appreciated the irony, so the former offered the latter a clearer explanation. ─ “Do you remember how I used to sing you the Itsy Bitsy Spider? This is a somewhat less itsy bitsy version of that”. While Gabriel considered the comparison, Jules and I were brought back to Tokyo, where we first time had seen one of these magnificent sculptures.
‘Zubizuri’, by Santiago Calatrava
The ‘Zubizuri’ (white bridge in Basque) crosses the Bilbao Estuary, connecting the city’s modern and medieval quarters. By the time we got there, Gabriel was fast asleep and unable to finally appreciate an art piece that didn’t look like a monster (some may disagree).
The footbridge’s author, Santiago Calatrava, holds the debatable honour of being both Spain’s most famous and infamous architect. His supporters praise the organic forms of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences or New York’s WTC station, while his detractors are decidedly less kind.