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‘Chacun à son goût’ at Guggenheim Bilbao

Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, ¿Habéis cedido a vuestro deseo? ('Have You Given In To Your Desire?'), 2007. Acrylic on fabric. 500 x 600 cm. © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photograph by Erika Barahona Ede
‘¿Habéis cedido a vuestro deseo?’ (‘Have you given in to your desire?’). These words, printed on a banner in the atrium of the Guggenheim Bilbao, welcome the visitors to the museum…
Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, ¿Habéis cedido a vuestro deseo? (‘Have You Given In To Your Desire?’), 2007. Acrylic on fabric. 500 x 600 cm. © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photograph by Erika Barahona Ede

‘¿Habéis cedido a vuestro deseo?’ (‘Have you given in to your desire?’). These words, printed on a banner in the atrium of the Guggenheim Bilbao, welcome the visitors to the museum. The work by Juan Pérez Agirregoikoa, part of an exhibition titled ‘Chacun à son goût’ (2007-08), interpellates everyone around it – including the museum itself. Or at least that is apparent if the text is read in the context in which it is shown: as part of a programme that celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Guggenheim – a museum with an explicitly international vocation – by focusing on the local scene which the institution has been at pains to acknowledge.

Another message, ‘GU’, appearing in hundreds of posters the museum distributed throughout the city, seems to also reflect an element of desire. These two letters, which have been chosen as the museum’s motto for this year of celebrations, point to two different etymologies: the first two letters of the name that designates the institution, and the word in Basque for ‘we’. The desire the museum has given in to now becomes clear – it is the desire to become a symbol of ‘we’, that is, a local, collective subject. In the Basque country, where the use of personal pronouns (‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’) can still create antagonism, the Guggenheim’s slogan is anything but innocent.

These divergent etymologies also allude to the anomalous origins of the Guggenheim Bilbao as the result of a joint venture between a private North American organisation and the political institutions of a small region in the southwest of Europe. In the early 1990s, during a shifting world order, the objectives of the two parties converged in Bilbao: the former planned to become a transnational company with multiple franchises; the latter was looking to relaunch the identity of the Basque country, immersed in a deep crisis because of decaying industry as well as an unresolved socio-political conflict.

The chosen formula was to house a contemporary art museum within an exceptional architectural form – a common strategy of power display in the 1990s. The result became known as the ‘Bilbao effect’, the elevation of a small and unknown city into a permanent fixture within the collective imaginary and international tourist circuit. The urban network of Bilbao and other cities was transformed by means of this accumulation of signature buildings.

Accordingly, the reason for which Bilbao is now known worldwide – the sweeping titanium curves that now grace its skyline – is one that fits perfectly in a tourist’s camera. If, as J.G. Ballard says, the Guggenheim-Bilbao is ‘the biggest toy in the world’, the toy here is not what is given as a present (the museum) but the glossy wrapping paper. In looking to create a trademark for the region, the Basque institutions in the 1990s decided that the New York museum could symbolise both the city of Bilbao, and, ironically, Basqueness. However, instead of a symbol, the building, perhaps the most discussed worldwide during the past decade, has instead become an icon and, like Warhol’s Elvis’s, Mao’s and Marilyn’s, it has become reproducible, flat and opaque. The substitution of icons for symbols is a distortion typical of our time (another one is the subordination of public to private interest). But while symbols function as complex signs with a use-value that elicits emotional bonds, trademarks operate via icons, and, unlike symbols, these are distant, aloof, flat signs that only generate exchange value.

What convinced Basque institutions to bet on a questionable cultural model – or, better, what besides expected economic benefits convinced them to do so? In order to understand the local institutions’ faith in the symbolic value of culture, we need to go back fifty years. In the 1960s, a group of artists led by Jorge Oteiza created the ‘Basque School’. The school, with leftist political orientation, was divided into different regional subgroups, whose names revealed the urgency and enthusiasm typical of the historical avant-garde: ‘Gaur’, ‘Hemen’, ‘Orain’ and ‘Denok’ (‘Today’, ‘Here’, ‘Now’, ‘All of us’). The current exhibition title’s, ‘Gu’, is missing from the list – it had already been used in the 1930s by a group of avant-garde Basque artists associated with the Spanish fascist movement the Falange.

The school’s roots lie in the utopian ideas and formal vocabulary of modernism – features that arrive with a considerable delay in relation to the international scene (an effect of Spain’s isolation during Franco’s dictatorship). At the same time, the dictatorship’s repression of local specificities generated an antagonism that strengthened the ideal of a collective Basque subject. A photograph of the school reflects this ideal: members of the group ‘Gaur’, all men, pose around Oteiza’s charismatic figure, smiling.

The work of the Basque School generated a strong identification between modernist sculpture and Basque identity, and this identification has determined local cultural politics since. Before the death of the dictator, artists from the Basque School collaborated in projects of great symbolic significance, such as the sanctuary of Arantzazu (which brings into the picture the historical role of the Basque Catholic church in the production of a national consciousness in opposition to Franco’s regime). After the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, those artists kept on providing a images with a function of collective identification. Many of these still populate the local landscape.

Ibon Aranberri’s Horizontes (Horizons, 2001-07), part of ‘Chacun à son goût’, intervenes in the grammar of this symbolic history of Basque sculpture. The installation consists of rows of small festive flags hung from the ceiling along the corridors of the museum, creating a succession of fractured planes. The flags display logos, in black and white, made by Eduardo Chillida that Aranberri has appropriated and altered. These graphic works, which are still used by government, corporate and social institutions in the Basque country, transpose the sculptures of Chillida, the other main figure of modern Basque art, into graphic form.

‘Chacun à son goût’, curated by Rosa Martínez, includes work by eleven artists of Basque origin born in the 1960s and 70s. The title, curiously in French, can be translated as ‘To Each His Own’, and replicates a tattoo that Robbie Williams wears on the back of his neck (a photograph of the singer appears on the cover of the catalogue). With the title’s appeal to individual subjectivity, the curator declares her intention to elude a generational or genealogical analysis. These approaches, more problematic but also more interesting than Martínez’s, had already been adopted by the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao in 2001 with the exhibition ‘Gaur, Hemen, Orain’ (‘Today, Here, Now’), curated by Bartomeu Marí and Guadalupe Echevarría. On that occasion, the objective and thesis of the show, as the title suggests, was to employ three different notions of the idea of belonging – common origin, contemporaneity and group – to frame the work of Basque artists.

It is indeed possible to identify a generation of artists who came of age at around the same time as the Guggengeim Bilbao opened. Some of them are part of this exhibition (such as Aranberri, Asier Mendizabal, Sergio Prego or Itziar Okariz); others aren’t. In any case, the museum’s influence on this generation has been small. Until today, the relationship between the artistic community and the institution has been characterised by at best by mutual indifference, and each has operated in different universes.

At worst, the museum’s violent irruption in the local scene increased the awareness of the tensions between the local reality and the global scene. In the Basque country, a place where the notion of identity remains divisive, the Guggenheim has chosen to solve that tension by dissolving it into imprecision.

When the artists who emerged in the Basque Country at that time entered the international scene, their work was inevitably interpreted in relation to its home context of a traumatic socio-political and identitarian conflict. Some artists, like Aranberri, Txomin Badiola and Mendizabal, have addressed these issues in explicit ways; for others, such as Jon Mikel Euba or Okariz, these are not explicitly the content but function as a background or interpretive horizon.

But beyond the presence or absence of local signifiers in their work, these artists share a conception of artistic practice as a political practice – which is perhaps a direct consequence of the context in which they operate. For example, Okariz’s works are centred in the body and its actions, and the socio-political implications of these. The video-performance Irrintzi (2007), her contribution to ‘Chacun à son goût’, is built around a Basque folk call, a non-verbal sign mostly performed by women. In the screen, the artist performs an irrintzi after another. While the sound reverberates in the walls of the museum, a time lapse between the audio and the image emphasises the gap between the body and the sound that it emits.

Okariz, like many others, participated in the series of workshops hosted by the San Sebastián art centre Arteleku during the 1990s, under the direction of the artists Badiola and Ángel Bados. Since its founding in 1986 Arteleku (‘the place for art’) has been an important place of production and encounter in the Basque art context (as well as an umbrella for projects such as DAE and consonni), and can without doubt be identified as the principal factor in the sentimental and ideological education of various generations of Basque artists.

Arteleku and Guggenheim Bilbao only crossed paths once, briefly. During an Arteleku workshop in 1994, led by Antoni Muntadas, the participants visited the offices of the Bilbao museum. A photograph shows some of them looking at a model of the building with expressions of pure scepticism in their faces.

That bewildered look of those participating in the workshop remains twelve years later in front of the actual building. The Frank Gehry building is perceived as a mirage, used as the most popular background for wedding photographs in the city. This character of distant iconicity is what the museum owes its success to – as well as its failure. Persistent in its isolation from its surroundings, it has been incapable of becoming what it claims to be: a museum of contemporary art. It hasn’t understood that for a museum in a peripheral city being contemporary involves dealing with its immediate context, even if this is conflictive (or precisely because of it).

Asier Mendizabal’s contribution to the exhibition points to this paralysis. Nom de guerre (2007) consists of a flame burning inside of a can. The sculpture recalls the improvised vessels for a flame that never goes out with which mourners remember the dead in the Basque conflict. The fumes produced by the flame are absorbed by an extractor which expels it, through a long exhaust pipe, to the ceiling and then outside the museum – a feat that involved an intervention into the entire physical and departmental structure of the institution. Mendizabal’s gesture of placing something that belongs to the outside world inside a location that – like the icon – has no insides is, because of this incorporation, a defeat in itself. A beautiful defeat that reveals the possibility of fracturing the icon. Or perhaps this possibility is nothing more than a mirage.

– Miren Jaio