In two days we’ve experienced the two extremes of art history. We spent much of Friday in Bilbao at the Guggenheim – several hours both outside and inside the museum. The building itself is the show stealer and will always upstage any exhibition there I think. They have excellent audio guides included in the entrance price which tell you all about Frank Gehry’s vision for the building and how he was inspired by fish scales, following playing with a carp in his grandmother’s bath as a child, to create the thin titanium panels that cover most of the exterior. Although we caught it in the gap between two major exhibitions there was more than enough to get our heads and feet around with some thrilling and challenging installations.
The following day we headed for the hills again going inland west of Bilbao and south of Santander and our highlight was a visit to the caves at Puente Viesgo where the promise of amazing stalagmite and stalagtite formations and prehistoric cave paintings had lured us. One of the things we really wanted was to get to see cave paintings on this trip, something neither of us had seen before. There is a limit of how many people can visit the caves on any given day to protect the delicate environment, so another bonus of the off season was that we got to see them with a small group and a great guide who kindly sprinkled the Spanish only tour with English words for us. He really brought to life how the paintings were thought to have been created using charcoal and ochre, with the lines often working out from natural lines or cracks in the stone itself – buffalo, deer and horses are depicted, and lots of hands. It was very special to be so deep underground with this ancient art and a miracle that it still exists for us to appreciate today. The rock formations defied belief that they could simply be created by a force of nature over thousands of years – extraordinary.
What a contrast to our time at the Guggenheim then little more than 24 hours before. And yet, at the Guggenheim one of our favourite installations was Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman. The artist has created an intriguing series of caves out of transient materials like cardboard, masses and masses of packing tape which covers most of the surface including the floor, aluminium foil-covered mannequins, books, posters, videos, cans, shelves, and so on, that you can walk through and around. So visits to caves ancient and modern have given us insights into where people began and where they are now – I’m sure we’ll spend at least some of the rest of the trip seeing things that fill in the gaps in between.