The Material of Time: Richard Serra’s sculpture series in the Guggenheim Bilbao

July 31, 2013 • Blogs, Online Content, Summer 2013 Blog, Summer Blogs • Views: 2764


I wouldn’t mind my love story starting here. Inside one of Serra’s massive creations – giant planks of wood arranged in curves and spirals. The first sculpture, located inside a ground-floor hall of the Bilbao Guggenheim, feels like a labyrinth. You walk the curve between two walls of wood, not being able to see more than a few feet ahead or behind. The walls keep pushing you first this way and then back as they continuously change direction and angle. After going around the spiral for a long enough time, you see the opening to the center of the sculpture. You enter, not knowing what to expect, but knowing you expect something. You get nothing. Surrounded by the same wooden walls you have now become familiar with, the space inside is empty. But it can’t contain nothing. You walked the whole spiral to get here, and that couldn’t have been for nothing; so here must have something.

Here doesn’t. The space is empty. But the here itself is not nothing. The space is something. The space is circular, and its color, the color of the floor, is a grey lighter and less bright than the shiny titanium that covers the building’s exterior. There is another space above the colossal walls, a space of broad white ceiling beams and dozens of tiny electric lights. These spaces, from being empty and negative, slowly become the art, more than the wood and the walls of the actual piece of art. The sculpture brings its background to the forefront, like a painting that draws more attention to its frame than to itself.

And alongside the frame, it draws attention to you. The sounds of your feet get amplified, of your friends’ voices, distorted. You and they run through the waves of wood like you’re in a playground, having conversations while standing meters and meters away. You feel like the protagonist of a fairy tale, walking along the endless spiral paths, unsure of when the walls will suddenly close down on you or open up. The center of each sculpture feels like an immense haven of solitude and privacy and as the echoes turn the sounds of your feet into music, you’re on the verge of dancing; till you hear footsteps coming or realize the guy on the balcony upstairs can see everything.

You enter another sculpture hoping for more solitude but instead interrupt the solitude of a couple inside. You and they, complete strangers before, now and likely for all of the future, have nonetheless just shared an intimate moment, a common experience of something extraordinary in size and intent.

You leave, your senses heightened and extra-observant of the crevices under the white walls, the weight of the ceiling beams, the sheer number of lights in that giant hall. And also, later, more observant of the border on your metro ticket, the multicolored tiles on the station floor and the industrial looking ceiling above the trains. While walking in the city, you’ve never really looked up before, but all you did for the last hour in the exhibit was stare at the ceiling and walls rising above you. Empty space doesn’t seem dull anymore and the background, for you, has come into the fore.

I wouldn’t mind my love story starting here.

Nitika Khaitan ’16 is blogging from Bilbao, Spain this summer. Contact her at

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao (Khaitan/TYG)

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao (Khaitan/TYG)

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao (Khaitan/TYG)

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao (Khaitan/TYG)


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