A Virtual Art Experience at The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Above photo: The Guggenheim Bilbao from the Pedro Arrupe footbridge over the Nervión river. Source: Tim Adams/Flickr.

The toughest thing about visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, from your desk chair? Choosing between a glass of cava or rioja to virtually cheers your friend with. 

My museum buddy, Aradhna, has been wanting to visit this culturally rich city in northern Spain for a while, so we thought why not “go” during lockdown. Having Google Arts & Culture at our fingertips, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to explore an art collection in another country altogether (we both live in London). No passports needed and no crowds blocking the paintings: we were sold.

Before taking our first virtual step inside the Guggenheim, the museum’s glistening titanium exterior captured our gaze. Designed by Frank Gehry, the building itself is exquisite. I’ve only ever seen one of Gehry’s architectural wonders in person – the Dancing House in Prague – and even through Google Street View, this spectacular, swirling structure that Bilbao gets to call its own, is worth the virtual trip alone.

There’s a video you can watch of a photographer and free-runner exploring the building on the Google Arts & Culture website I recommend checking out. It begins in a cloud of fog emitted by Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture and takes you on a heart-stopping ride around its silver roof. Named appropriately, “Bending Gravity” captures the Guggenheim’s unconventional beauty while the free-runner makes unbelievable flips in midair.

Back on earth, Jeff Koons’s larger-than-life, stainless steel Tulips welcome visitors at the museum’s entrance. Like his famous, balloon-like Rabbit sculpture, this bright bouquet of reflective flowers is a playful reminder of celebration and electric joy.

Tulips by Jeff Koons
PHOTOGRAPH BY Wikimedia Commons

Inside the museum, we first checked out Richard Serra’s eight sculptures called The Matter of Time. What began as one sculpture made for the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997, grew to include seven other rusty-orange sculptures in a shared space. The installation takes up an entire room and street view lets you look down on them from the first-floor balcony. Meant to be walked through and around, this is a piece I hope to visit in person one day.

The Matter of Time
PHOTOGRAPH BY Google Street View

Throughout our virtual tour, we quickly fell into a rhythm for finding art, learning about the artists and the origins and symbolism behind their work. We’d wander around the gallery using Google Arts & Culture, easily jumping between levels (0, 1 and 2), and then pull up the artist’s bio and artwork on the Guggenheim Bilbao’s website. My friend and I found this the best way to explore the collection and uncover histories and hidden messages we might not have otherwise.

This is how we stumbled upon Anselm Kiefer’s paintings, The Land of Two Rivers (1995), Sunflowers (1996) and The Renowned Orders of Time (1997). Born in Germany in 1945, Kiefer grew up in a divided and devastated country, an environment that impacted his relationship with his homeland and representation of society and history.

The Land of Two Rivers by Anselm Kiefer
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://www.wikiart.org/en/anselm-kiefer/the-land-of-the-two-rivers-zweistromland-1995

Depicting the land where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet, The Land of Two Rivers draw upon the cyclical nature of civilization, the natural world and regeneration. Its massive size – 710 cm wide by 416 cm high – soothing earth tones and ripped, raised texture make you wish you could reach out and touch it. Kiefer beautifully recreates this historical site, cracking its surface figuratively and literally, and putting the pieces back together again.

On the wall opposite is Kiefer’s equally striking Sunflowers. First, your eye goes directly to the three flowers’ deep black centers towering above earth. The stalks, leaves and petals are so dark and distinct, the floating man at the bottom becomes secondary – a solemn backstory about death perhaps, or as the gallery’s description points out, a symbol of the natural world’s connection to the heavens.

The Renowned Orders of the Night by Anselm Kiefer
PHOTOGRAPH BY Google Street View

Next door hangs the final Kiefer painting that we checked out: The Renowned Orders of the Night. While the sky makes up roughly the top 75% of the canvas, it features a similar male figure at the bottom, only this time lying on solid ground. Again you feel the vastness of nature and something much bigger than humankind. The cracked paint and contrasting colors stand out in street view, allowing you to identify more closely with the lonely figure who appears to surrender to the stars.

Light, emitting from a different source – nine vertical LED signs stretching from the ground floor to the first level – caught our eye next. Virtually, Jenny Holzer’s digital signs appear as red beams on one side and blue on the other, but on the museum’s website, you can see words actually written in Basque, the local language. Spanish and English translations are displayed on the other side and are all part of a project originally composed to benefit AIDS research. Luckily these 12-meter high light columns are a permanent installation at the Guggenheim so visitors can get a closer look when it reopens.

Installation for Bilbao by Jenny Holzer
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://www.flickr.com/photos/jaycross/3250133927

With a click of a button, we jumped onto level two. To greet us was none other than One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns by Andy Warhol. Depicting the same image of Marilyn Monroe’s face 150 times using his famous silkscreening technique, this 10-meter long painting gives mass reproduction tangible meaning. The ability to zoom in and out in street view gives you impressive panoramic and magnified views of the canvas. You find that the dark, reversed images are stark and at the same time seem to fade away. It’s Pop art at its finest – a piece you could spend hours in front of.

After our leisurely virtual tour around the Guggenheim, Aradhna and I decided to end with an artist who needs no introduction: Yoko Ono. She has two works in the collection, one on view and one not, the former being an olive tree called Wish Tree for Bilbao. Depending on when you visit the museum, you can either write down and hang your “wishes for peace” on the tree or whisper them to this living symbol of peace and friendship. Mentally, I wish for this virus to go away and for those who are infected to be healed.

Hanging a wish on Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Bilbao.
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://www.flickr.com/photos/kvh/14424818121/in/photolist-kEdfqy-nYEXSH-Lx7nhG

Ono’s other piece in the collection is also conceptual, although this time she chose black sumi ink as her medium. Hichiko Happo is one of nine canvases with the phrase “seven happinesses and eight treasures” written in Japanese across them. Ono made up this expression by flipping a Japanese tale around about a samurai experiencing “seven misfortunes and eight sufferings” to save his people from hardship. Even seeing it digitally, you feel Ono’s energy in the drips of black ink and intentional brushstrokes. Her message is uplifting and full of hope.

It’s Ono’s extraordinary talent for showing the world through a new lens that carries us back to our living rooms on different ends of London. Returning to my sofa letting the night’s trip to Bilbao soak in, I knew I hadn’t even scratched the surface of virtual art experiences. Soon my mind was thinking, where will the digital highway take me next?

Begin your virtual tour of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao here and discover more about the collection here.

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Celeste Allen

Celeste Allen is a Content Creator and Strategist in London who helps businesses in the arts and cultural heritage industries connect people to experiences that matter. Originally from New Orleans, Celeste has always been surrounded by the performing and visual arts, eventually combining her passion for culture and history with storytelling to form CBA Content. Say hello on Instagram and Twitter: @cba_content.