Clueless in the spider’s web: a stroll through a museum

Dipsikha Thakur 30 January 2014

From outside, the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao is a giant, menacing silver puzzle that comes with its own thirty-foot high bronze spider. Naturally, I had not even tried to anticipate what the inside might hold. Once in, I saw dizzying flights of stairs drawn up in helixes and curved walls offset by narrow glass gaps that occasionally reminded the visitor of the day outside.

This museum can be a difficult experience for those like me who do not ‘understand’ art. I have read a couple of books on Classical art and that is it: nothing to prepare me for the monstrous topsy-turvy world of modern art that I faced.

The ground floor housed an exhibition of Richard Serra’s giant wood labyrinths called A Matter of Time. I found myself engulfed in the maze of strange wooden walls that either leaned towards or away from me. The gentle clatter of the audiophone reassured that visitors had been known to feel ill in this room but that all was going to be fine.

Next, I attempted the first floor, which was definitely the most harrowing of the entire museum. Strange everyday objects, agricultural tools and even what seemed to be a human-sized stencil sat in inscrutable, frustrating silence. The face of Antoni Tàpies, their creator, stared down smugly in the corridor. I felt confused: was I missing something obvious?

The truth is I had no response except confusion to a lot of what I saw in the Guggenheim. But there were families, couples and school children walking around the same rooms who were more at ease. They treated it as any other notable space – they posed for photos, Facebooked from their phones and saw it as a tourist spot.

The second floor was less intimidating. It housed a photography exhibition featuring the works of Erlea Zabala. What has stuck in my memory is the series Pilgrimages for a New Economy. The artist had taken pictures of common tourist attractions on her computer screen. The dust on the screen, the distortion and the flash together had rendered the familiar spots into images from an alien, twilight-coloured future.

As I stood looking at a strange, dystopian rendering of what seemed to be the Eiffel Tower from a distance, I suddenly realized that the destabilization and discomfort I had been feeling was perhaps less my personal inadequacy than the intent of such a space.

Every piece of art in this museum was a confrontation. It made me question my assumptions about beauty, familiarity and normalcy. I realized that as a layperson, the most rewarding experience in such a space could only come from embracing all the sensations it caused – including the headache and exhaustion.