‘The Bilbao Effect: Guggenheim's 20th Anniversary’ by William Davie

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

Light show: 11 October 2017

For images: www.theguardian.com

Review by William Davie

Much has been written and said of ‘The Bilbao Effect’ recently. On the night of 11 October 2017, the Guggenheim Bilbao, which has been credited for spearheading the city’s regeneration, celebrated its 20th anniversary.  For the ceremony, 59 productions were commissioned to create a twenty minute projection mapping titled Reflections that was looped and displayed onto the exterior of the Frank Gehry designed museum for 4 days.

Justin Sutcliffe, a freelance photographer was commissioned to cover the event for The Guardian. He positioned himself in the tower of La Salve Bridge, also known as the Princes of Spain suspension bridge where he would be shooting the first public viewing,

“This was my first visit time in Bilbao and the experience of actually being in and around the Guggenheim was rather magical” said Justin. “I remember seeing magazine articles at the time of the opening and being blown away by Frank Gehry’s visionary architecture and the ambition of the permanent collection.”

The projection drew upon works on permanent display in the museum grounds, most notably with Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (Ama) (1999, cast in 2001), a sculpture of spider that is over 30 feet tall. It’s small, spindly legs encase the viewer as they pass through beneath its body. The work has a duality of meanings. First, representing a feeling of protection - the spider that protects her precious eggs - in this case the audience becomes them, yet, at the same time, it also provokes a sense of awe and fear, that, improbably balanced on these slender legs, conveys a poignant vulnerability.

During one part of the projection, as dramatic music thundered across the Nervión river, a beam of light shoots up above the museum by the spider, and, for a split second, it is the spider’s web. A powerful light imposes its swollen shadow on to the wall of the museum, its vulnerability paralyzed. It’s a powerful metaphor for the spirit of the people of Bilbao as they have adapted and grown with Guggenheim to give the city its second wind.

“I loved the way the music and animated art worked so seamlessly. Music is powerfully important to me, and the score just felt interwoven with the images. In the course of my work it’s a privilege to see extraordinary things, both great and terrible.”

At the start of the millennium Justin found himself being assigned to cover conflicts in Africa, the Middle-East and Afghanistan. In 2002, a photograph he took of the Moscow theatre siege became the defining image of the tragedy, being published around the world and subsequently went on to win the 2003 World Press Photo competition. 

“What particularly struck a chord for me was the confluence of technical excellence, artistic integrity, and a piece that seemed to perfectly fit with the atmosphere of the audience, all done with such grace under pressure - everyone was working at high levels for extraordinarily long hours, throughout the night in the time leading up to the opening. The whole team had the feeling of family and they very generously welcomed me in for the short time I was there. I’m so accustomed to being an outside observer, but it felt great to contribute, albeit in a minor way, to the recording of their amazing achievement.”

This is not to say that there were not obstacles to overcome. The work contained many transients from very bright lights to darker lights. The complex shape of the Guggenheim meant that some areas of the projection became too bright if viewed from specific angles, forcing Justin to quickly figure out what worked best for each camera, lens and angle. The hardest challenge though was how to convey a sense of narrative as well as capturing the most visually compelling moments of a moving projection as still images – “a very thought-provoking process… but everyone loves a challenge like that.”

“Lots of people I spoke with in the audience also seemed to love the narrative of the piece in addition to the atmosphere and the spectacle” continued Justin. “It’s well documented that the introduction of art can be a tool of regeneration and renewal. Something I have seen in many places; Lens, Gateshead, Margate, St Ives, it strikes me that Bilbao has managed it in a way that fulfils on so many levels.”

“I’ve always treated every assignment as though it might be my last chance to take a photograph” adds Justin. “So I rarely come away from one without something enjoyable. But this was special, a rare mix of challenges, rewards and visual stimulation that just left me buzzing for days.”

William Davie is a writer and curator based in London. He writes art reviews for Aesthetica Magazine, Ambit and This Is Tomorrow.