On entering the new exhibition Art and Space at the Guggenheim Bilbao, there’s a work by Jorge Oteiza called ‘Lemoizen gertutasuna adierazten duen estela’, carved by the Basque artist in 1973. Oteiza had announced in the late 1950s that he would no longer produce sculpture, but the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in the Basque country—at Lemoiz—prompted him to produce this work—a squat, elegant and quietly threatening arrow that must always be installed pointing in the direction of the power plant.
As it happens, the plant was never finished. Oteiza’s ‘estela’ was part of a decade of protest against it in the seventies and early eighties, tipping into violence once ETA, the Basque separatist group, got involved. They saw the power plant as typical of Spanish imperialism—parking a potentially dangerous reactor in the poorer industrial north, far away from Madrid. Attacks and bombings on the plant set back construction, killing guards and workers, and, in the early eighties, ETA kidnapped and killed the head engineer of the project, José María Ryan. In 1984 a newly elected Socialist government called a nationwide halt to all new nuclear power projects, finally stopping work at Lemoiz just as it was close to completion. It now lies abandoned, with Oteiza’s mute sculpture still pointing at it from twenty miles away, finally victorious.
By the nineties, Oteiza was defending the Basque country against a new foreign building project—the Guggenheim Bilbao. According to the Basque writer Joseba Zulaika, he opposed it with “a murderous fury”. He had been planning a Basque super-museum for a long time, designed in collaboration with the Spanish architect F. J. Saenz de Oiza, showcasing the heights of the Basque avant-garde alongside the rest of the world, as well as providing a workshop for local artists, a library, an auditorium and other facilities. Just as Oteiza’s plans were reaching fruition, the charismatic Director of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, Thomas Krens, managed to charm the city authorities into handing over hundreds of millions of dollars to fund his museum, as well as pay for its future upkeep and maintenance. Creative control, meanwhile, would be exercised from the Guggenheim’s New York office, which would decide what was put on, and what would go in the museum’s collection. ‘Puppy’ by Jeff Koons—a forty foot high dog made of real flowers that require expensive and regular replanting—was parked outside the museum. A monument to American post-modern kitsch, it seemed totally opposed to the austere modernist understatement of Oteiza’s work.
Oteiza obstinately refused to allow his work to enter the museum, calling it “cultural genocide, a Basquedisney circus”. When he died in 2003, the Guggenheim held a retrospective of his work in 2004, and now, in this group show, ‘Lemoizen gertutasuna adierazten duen estela’ sits in the first room of Art and Space, pointing north.
Estela can imply lots of things in Spanish and Basque, from ‘vigil’ to ‘path’, ‘contrail’ to ‘trajectory’. Oteiza’s estele—he made many of them, in different styles and to mark different people and occasions—are usually translated into English as ‘stele’ or ‘stela’, a more specific archaeological word referring to ‘an upright stone slab or column typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design’ which lacks the spatial connotations of the Spanish and Basque translations. Oteiza’s estela for Lemoiz is more than an abstract commemoration for the nuclear power plant; it actively points from its current position to a spot some miles to the north, and asks us to link and compare the two spaces, to think about the trajectory through time and space between them. One building that Oteiza defeated, and another that defeated him.
For a show ostensibly about containment, about how things are divided, formed and held together in tension, Art and Space is a curiously slack and diffuse experience. It is, at base, an anthology of artworks related to the word ‘space’, and more specifically lots of artworks responding to the concept of ‘space’ (as discussed by Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Li Fu-Tuan, etc) from the fifties to the present day. The corridor leading up to the exhibition is plastered with related pictures—of the moon landings, for example—and a number of statements and questions printed in large letters with certain words picked out in bold, presumably designed to get the mental-spatial juices flowing:
… IS SPACE THE MAIN FEATURE OF ARCHITECTURE? …
… IMAGINE A BLACK HOLE …
… WHAT IS SPACE-TIME? …
And, finally, my favourite:
… IN THE VOID, IN NOTHINGNESS… WHERE ARE WE? …
There are some heartbreakingly excellent works of art in this exhibition, but as a whole it seems swamped by its own lack of argument, lack of tension. Some works survive this environment—Agnieszka Kurant’s Air Rights series, enigmatic and stately, seem to sidestep the need to compete with everything else. I love Vija Celmins’ drawings and I could probably watch footage of Gordon Matta-Clark making a hole in a house for the rest of my life, if someone else took care of food and water, etc.
But overall the effect is clamorous, and many of the artworks thus become reduced to curiosities—this is the one that puts a sink hole in the wall, this is the one that explodes a Volkswagon Beetle, this is the false neon tunnel and this one… well, it points to an unrealised nuclear power station.
The press release for the exhibition speaks of the “boundless capacity of Frank Gehry’s museum to establish singular dialogues between its breathtaking spaces and fundamental works of the modern and contemporary eras”, and describes the exhibition as aiming to “analyse dialogue between spaces and volumes, exploring the silent conversations and connections between artworks and the forces that structure them”. These forces are named as “gravity, luminosity, balance”.
Lawrence Weschler, in his 1982 book about the artist Robert Irwin, entitled Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, relates Irwin’s reaction to his paintings being attacked by local artists at the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1965, after he had been labelled by U.S. critics as part of a West Coast ‘Cool School’.
I thought that reaction interesting in its direction towards something cool. I mean, the fact that the work has no overt political, social gestures in it would make you think that it would therefore read as neutral, I mean cool and neutral being parallel. But, anyway, here was an audience that was probably not supersophisticated, and yet they somehow intuitively recognised an attack on a lot of the values they held. It threatened them.
Weschler thinks in response to Irwin, but doesn’t say, that perhaps it was “precisely the haughty neutrality of his paintings in the otherwise politically charged context of Brazil in 1965 that so infuriated the paintings’ desecrators: a political challenge they might have welcomed!” It’s a dynamic that recalls what Alice Notley says to Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, regarding feminist art in the seventies and eighties, that “because we rejected a certain kind of theoretical language, people just assumed we were dumb.” There are lots of forces other than “gravity, luminosity, balance” that shape artworks and the spaces we put them into.
It would have been nice to learn more about such dynamics in this exhibition. And it’s a shame that a potential nudge towards exactly that kind of examination of space sits there just to the right of the entrance, pointing at its defeated opponent, all the while largely unexplored and unexplained. This exhibition is supposed to be part of the 20th anniversary programming, to mark two decades of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if they were secure enough now to really think about their own gallery as a political, economic, social space? To really consider some of the “singular dialogues” between Gehry’s building and the “fundamental works of the modern and contemporary eras” inside it?
I first encountered Oteiza’s work in a very roundabout way, after reading an Allan Sekula essay called ‘Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs)’, published in October magazine in 2002. The essay begins with a bizarre and vaguely threatening letter to Bill Gates, followed by three pictures of Sekula swimming in Lake Washington outside Gates’ home, and it then ranges from the Seattle globalisation protests, to maritime labour conditions, to the set of Titanic, which Sekula photographed during filming—an Edwardian steamer incongruously beached in the desert outside late-nineties Tijuana—and, finally, to the Guggenheim Bilbao, which he dismisses as:
‘a Los Angeles export product, a leviathan of California postmodernity beached on the derelict riverfront of the economically depressed maritime-industrial capital of the Basques… the first move in a projected campaign of economic “revitalisation,” tied, as one might expect, to land speculation and tourist promotion.’
After exploring the aerospatial, military-industrial roots of the titanium cladding of the museum, he acidly concludes that ‘there are no Guggenheims planned for Hanoi, Belgrade, Baghdad or Basra.’
Sekula’s boundless anger at the modern world always impresses and amuses me in equal measure; there’s something both exhilarating and a little silly about the way his work goes about making connections between things. Deleuze and Guatarri, in an era less cautious when talking about mental illness, called this the kind of ‘schizophrenic’ associationism that mirrored (and was needed in order to understand) the mysterious and manifold workings of capital: what do the destruction of Baghdad and the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao have in common? What do a nuclear power plant and an art gallery have in common?
Sekula got much of the detail of his discussion of Bilbao from the aforementioned writer Joseba Zulaika, who in 1997 published a blistering account of the dealings between Thomas Krens and the city officials entitled Crónica de una seducción (‘Chronicle of a seduction’). Reading Zulaika’s work on the Guggenheim is great fun. Though he’s always acerbically critical, he clearly revels in being at the centre of things, acting more or less as a go between, passing messages between some of the biggest players in the globetrotting nineties glitterati of art, architecture and money.
Krens incautiously invites Zulaika to have sushi and wine with him in his high-rise Manhattan offices one evening, telling him of the negotiations with the city authorities and how “The Basques came to eat out of my hand… I couldn’t believe it.” Zulaika later tells Oteiza he’s planning to write everything up as a book against the Guggenheim, and Oteiza cut him short immediately, ordering him to “forget about writing and quit fooling around. Kill them. I will pay you.” This might have been taken as merely a dramatic turn, were it not for the fact that Oteiza kept a loaded gun on his desk.
Zulaika’s writing, in an enjoyably 90s-00s kind of way, is also obsessed with the structural characteristics and nuances of irony. One irony he notes is that Oteiza’s refusal to bow to the museum led to a rise in his art world fortunes. When a sufficiently humble Richard Serra and Frank Gehry went to Bilbao to see him on behalf of the Guggenheim, accompanied by journalists and photographers, it was front-page news, and the flattery rolled off their eminent tongues: he was “one of the four or five most fundamental artists of the century”, and “the greatest sculptor alive”. This, according to Zulaika, led to Oteiza finally obtaining “the international recognition that [had] eluded him all along.”
Another irony became apparent when I spoke to Zulaika last December, after going to see the exhibition in Bilbao. After attacking it vociferously and causing Krens and the Guggenheim much embarrassment, Zulaika now, for the most part, supports the museum. “I am something of a turncoat,” he told me. “I have to accept that it has been fantastic for Bilbao tourism… It became a landmark, it became a reference point, and just imagine, for that city it is a goldmine.”
I couldn’t help feeling slightly saddened by this outbreak of reasonableness from the fiery critic. Surely, I ask, the economic success of the museum doesn’t nullify all his earlier criticisms? “In terms of for art, and as a model of the museum, I don’t like it at all basically,” he says. “But in terms of image production… the front page of the New York Times magazine in 1997 – ‘the miracle in Bilbao’. Just imagine when at those times everything that was written about the Basque was ‘terrorism’… it was fantastic in those terms.”
He had made his peace with the gallery, in some sense, though he understood why young artists in Bilbao resented it and didn’t engage with it. Looking back now, the window into the past that Oteiza’s work affords—back to Zulaika and the opening of the Guggenheim, and back again to the opening of Lemoiz nuclear power station—it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw. Trump pops up in Zulaika’s writing, and is compared with Krens both for his “amorousness”, his thirst for kitsch and his acquisitive nous when it comes to real estate. Perhaps certain currents that Anglo-American culture made peace with in the noughties have come back to bite.
Felix Bazalgette is a writer from London. His work has appeared in The New Statesman, The White Review, The Economist, The London Review of Books blog, Blackbox Manifold and 3:AM Magazine among others.