The port city of Bilbao is good place to encounter iron. With a history steeped in steel, ship-building and the shipping industry, the tradition for iron works and iron workers runs deep. That heritage is celebrated by artist Richard Serra at Guggenheim Bilbao in his monumental work titled The Matter of Time. The sculpture, a huge installation of weathering steel, might be either temple or tomb. It’s comprised of eight environmental forms that torque and soar upward into a light-filled chamber. Serra’s work blurs the line between art and architecture. It invites entry and is experienced by walking through its labyrinth of curved walls that offer ever-changing perspectives.
Inside, smooth steel mimics the texture and feel of red weathered sandstone. I might be in a canyon except that here, there is design. The flow of geometry that is not linear leads me onward into unknown territory. Each ephemeral seeing is followed by gift and new discovery. The experience is one of movement through space and time. The sculpture is like life. It can’t be summed up, only experienced.
Journeying through Serra’s installation takes me to the place where the world was forged and into a visceral experience of unfathomably deep time, the kind of geological time that stretches back to before, before there was love, before there was life.
My husband Jon and I arrived last night from Boston after twenty-four long hours of travel. Bilbao, in the Basque region of northern Spain, is a bit out of the way and so we were routed through Germany before backtracking across Europe. I was tired. After changing money at the airport, we took the bus into town and, pulling our suitcases behind us, walked to the Airbnb apartment we’d rented for the next ten days.
The place was nice enough— living, dining, and kitchen all in one room, bedroom and bath separate—perfect for two people. I’d spotted a grocery store a few blocks away, and so, after we dropped our luggage, we walked back to buy cheeses, bread, olives, oranges, and jamón, also wine, coffee, and a dozen eggs—everything we needed for an evening repast and breakfast. We supped and shared some wine, sat and talked and felt ready for sleep in our queen-sized bed.
Jon dozed off almost immediately, but I did not. Around ten o’clock in the evening Bilbao’s night life was just getting going. Directly across the street, an open-fronted working-class bar was loud with men gesticulating, talking, shouting, drinking, and even raising their voices in song. All this carousing went on into the wee hours.
Restless and overtired, I watched the lively scene unfold from our bedroom window. Men hunched over glasses of beer, wine, and shots of hard liquor were seated at small wooden tables on simple straight-backed wooden chairs. Since I couldn’t understand their Spanish, I guessed they might have been speaking Euskera or Basque, the ancient language of the Basque people, so old and so unique that linguists are uncertain of its origins. Their gathering felt ritualistic, as though this happened every night, as though they anchored their lives in this communal exchange.
When sleep deprived, I lose my boundaries and enter something like a hallucinatory state. The men seemed to come across and into me—telling me their stories. I heard them speaking without grasping any narrative. They were just voices, all stacked on top of one another like layer upon layer of sedimentary rock.
Finally, I crawled back into bed.
As I dropped off, I had an image of myself as a young woman. My hands were filled with just harvested tomatoes. I held them—seed-sprinkled, warm with the sky-blue flavor of summer. Beneath the hydrangea out in the yard of the apartment where we were living, our gray tabby cat lurked, always on alert for the unfortunate mice he killed and brought to our window ledge as proof of his prowess. I wanted to ask and to know. Where had that person gone? Who was she? But I couldn’t know her any more. She was lost in time, as was the night, as was I. Long after daybreak, I woke to bright sun. The bar was closed, the street quiet.
Every morning, Jon makes breakfast and it’s always the same—scrambled eggs, toast, orange segments, and Nescafe. It’s a good breakfast, and a time to linger and talk. The main piece of furniture in our living room is a huge soft leather couch with a coffee table in front of it and a TV mounted on the opposite wall. We don’t use the television much. With wi-fi and our computer, we’re streaming films about artists we admire in this part of the world—Eduardo Chillida, Jorge Oteiza, and of course, Richard Serra—all of whom create monumental, architectural sculpture in iron and steel.
Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by architect Frank Gehry, was part of a face-lift for this aging and failing industrial town. The museum and other improvements were meant to revitalize the city, making it an attractive destination. Like all Gehry’s buildings, the museum is easily recognizable—with features that confound and intrigue.
Puppy, a huge topiary by Jeff Koons, guards the entrance, and during our visit, offerings include an exhibit of graffiti-like works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a protégé of Andy Warhol and an artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, who died young. Basquiat’s work is an act of protest, sometimes an expression of anger that verges on rage. In yet another gallery, immense, colorful canvases by New York painter Alex Katz are on display. While Katz is known for his portraits, especially of his wife, Ada, these paintings approach and depict landscape in unconventional ways. With smooth areas of pure color, Katz’s uses the flat picture plane to impart freshness and vigor.
And then too, the museum itself is a work of art. Gehry’s spaces defy all logic and they’re meant to. Guggenheim Bilbao may be the biggest sculpture on display. At the rear of the building—if such an orientation can be suggested—is the walk along the river where Louis Bougeois’s giant spider sculpture looms over pedestrians.
Each day, for lunch, we cross the bridge at the far reach of the river walk and proceed into the old town area to choose a restaurant. Avoiding the more up-scale places, we eat alongside businessmen and office workers in simple settings with wooden tables and chairs. The stews with meat and chickpeas, the fish with subtle sauces, the rice, the potatoes with chorizo—all these slow-cooked dishes are filling and delicious. When we order the house wine, they bring us a bottle, and we drink most of it before rising to make our way back home for a nap.
I’m in a strange mental zone, a somnolent state. The active days seem dreamlike, while the nights are sharp and filled with clarity. Sleep continues to elude me, not the least because of the bar. After that noise quiets, I lie with my eyes closed and listen to the multi-layered sounds of the city—first the burst of a motorcycle accompanied by pedestrians calling out to one another as they wend their way toward home— and then beneath it all murmurs, whisperings, a scratching sound like mice in the walls or rats in the sewers. And perhaps I may even hear sounds from beyond the town where the river flows, and the sea is not too far away. It’s certainly possible.
From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engulfed in a terrible civil war. Eventually, Francisco Franco and his troops, with help from Fascist Germany and Italy, overthrew the Spanish Republic—a democratically elected government. Afterward, from 1939 to 1975, Franco ruled with an iron hand. During his years in power, the Basque language, culture, and independent spirit were brutally suppressed.
My knowledge and impressions of the Spanish Civil War have been shaped by shocking and indelible imagery. Years ago, I encountered Robert Capa’s black and white photographs chronicling the horror and suffering. One of his images, The Falling Soldier, depicts a man at the moment of his dying. He’s been shot, his body pitches backward, the arm holding his gun splays outward. I imagine the scene repeated thousands of times in thousands of ways. About two hundred thousand people lost their lives.
Mass atrocities included the merciless bombing of Guernica, a small town just up the coast. Picasso eventually eulogized Guernica in his famous painting by the same name. It’s a scary canvas depicting body parts, animals, and a man or woman with raised arms screaming at the sky. And in the mid-60’s, American artist Robert Motherwell chose to remember and lament the lost. In his series, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, dense black forms communicate mourning and speak to the erasure of lives.
As I walk these streets, I imagine the darkness of those former times. And yet there’s hope. Public signs in Bilbao are now offered in both Spanish and Basque. There’s been compromise and a resurgence of Basque identity. When we come upon a protest march, we give it wide berth. Though no longer a violent movement, Basque separatism still seeks independence from greater Spain and with good reason.
The Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida was born in nearby San Sebastián in 1924. He is most famous for The Comb of the Wind, a collection of three steel sculptures mounted on coastal rocks. The wind combs jut out over the ocean with teeth meant to clutch the flow of air and filter the storms of the Atlantic. And though we’ve planned an overnight trip to San Sebastián, we will not be able to see these works except in photographs as the site is closed for repair.
We take the train to San Sebastián—traveling across the Basque country—a rugged, mountainous region green with deep ravines, its boxy white farmsteads separated from one another by extreme descents and ascents. It’s hard to imagine a people who could survive here before the advent of road and rail. Sometimes, just beyond the train track, there is a precipitous drop. But no one seems concerned. People get on and off. This local train stops at every village.
In San Sebastián, we walk to our hotel and then, immediately, head for the seaside promenade. This walkway extends for miles atop rocks and cliffs that fall toward the Prussian blue water below. Waves pull restlessly around stones and crash over them lifting spray.
Jon looks longingly across the bay toward the site of The Comb of the Wind but regrettably, the sculpture isn’t visible from any reachable vantage point. Finally, we retrace our steps toward the beach. The sun is beginning to set. The water is golden with light and dotted with dark bodies in wet suits—surfers heading out to catch the evening’s waves. The setting is magical but we’ve got other things on our mind.
San Sebastián is famous for its bar scene and for pintxos, small dishes, things on skewers, and all manner of pastries, sausages, shrimp, and fish. The tradition is to move from one bar to the next, having a small drink and a pinxto at each place. After only two stops, we find we are done. Our days of nightlife seem behind us. We laugh at ourselves.
These are our dog days. We aren’t old but we are no longer young either. Yesterday, we told one another we had to be careful. We couldn’t afford to step off a curb, fall, and break an ankle or wrist. Twenty or thirty years ago, such thoughts would never have crossed my mind. But after sixty, a sense of vulnerability sets in.
On our final day, we return once more to The Matter of Time. Each journey through Serra’s work yields a fresh experience. Nine days later, I’m a different person having yet another encounter with iron. The sculpture allows me passage, then offers freedom, releasing me and sending me on my way.
Afterward, we cross the river to revisit Oteiza’s The Alternative Ovoid, a huge steel construction of circles and half circles. A contemporary of Chillida, Oteiza was a Basque artist and critic, a theorist who also worked in iron and steel. Like Chillida, Oteiza also used negative space to allow for the passage of wind and air.
For lunch, we return to a familiar restaurant where, reputedly, they serve the best cocidos in Bilbao. The cocido, a slow cooked stew, might contain any of several kinds of meat, sausages, potatoes, chick peas, vegetables, and herbs. I feel sad, knowing this the last time we will eat at this homely but wonderful establishment.
When I was young and traveled, I always imagined returning one day for another look. Now, I say goodbye, knowing that probably, I will not be back. I hope I have done all I needed to do here—my spiritual work. The hands that reach out to comb the wind, the ticking clock, the marching feet that include my own, these are the things I knew as I encountered iron.
Writer and artist Jeri Griffith lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont. She has published stories and essays in literary quarterlies and is currently working on a collection of essays and a collection of short stories, as well as organizing exhibitions of her art.
Andrée-Anne Guay was born in 1986 in Limoilou, Québec. Her studies went from Media Arts to Archival Arts. Therefore, the fruit of her work is a pleasant combination of these two passions. Drea’s collages celebrate the beauty of the universe in all its originality and complexity. Mainly composed of archival documents, her colorful illustrations are a praise of the world’s diversity.