The day that Muntadas 'emptied' Bilbao

Antoni Muntadas (Barcelona, ​​1942) has been setting up a chaos of concepts, documents, images and intentions perfectly organized for half a century with a view to telling some of the things that catch his attention. And, of course, the city and its fabric and its developments and its political-urban controversies and its possibilities achieved or failed are one of its priority focuses of attention. From the visual arts and the multimedia universe, but also from the territory of the social sciences —sociology, anthropology, ecology, media… -, this persecutor of uncertainties, inhabitant and activist of the concept of the urban versus the rural, goes documenting the future of the city in the form of multiform projects. And if before they were Venice o Cadaqués, Mexico City or Barcelona, ​​Marseille or San Sebastián, Seoul or New York, this time it was Bilbao’s turn. The empty city, the facility that currently houses the Museum of Fine Arts (open until September 5), investigates the chiaroscuro of what more than two decades ago came to be called the guggenheim effect or, more generically, the Bilbao effect, the object of congresses, seminars, books, exhibitions and documentaries all over the world.

Zubizuri, next to the Bilbao estuary, with the Calatrava bridge and the Isozaki towers. On the left, during confinement. Right: again with people.Antoni Muntadas / EPS

It is one of those “artifacts” – a word that the artist himself claims to define his montages – with which Muntadas advances against established ideas, and which according to him require the complicity of the public to be activated. This time he has done it in the company of the anthropologist Joseba Zulaika, the artistic curator Guadalupe Echevarría, the urban planner Arantxa Rodríguez, the architect Iñaki Uriarte and even the bertsolaris Ohiana Bartra and Arkaitz Estiballes. Ultimately, the objective is none other than to look from critical positions to the overwhelming success inertia that marked and continues to mark the process by which Bilbao went in a relatively short time from a flagship of industrialization to a city of fashion. From the Altos Hornos and the Euskalduna Shipyards to the Gehry’s Guggenheim, the foster meter and design hotels.

This theoretical and visual reflection, which was commissioned by the Video Art and Digital Creation Program of the Museum of Fine Arts and the BBVA Foundation, is structured on three legs, although initially two were planned. Muntadas wanted to launch, based on the historical development of urban planning in Bilbao and the accumulated cultural strata on the banks of the Nervión, an investigation into public space and architecture. With that intention the devices were born On Translation: La Ría Y Suntsiketa / Eraikuntza (Destruction / Construction). The first confronts the traditional recording offered to tourists during their boat trip through the Ría with Iñaki Uriarte’s critical discourse on certain urban actions in the city. The second alternates images of present-day Bilbao with some dramatic and tragic milestones in the history of the city (wars, earthquakes, floods …).

Double projection

But in full preparation for the exhibition, a pandemic arrived. So Muntadas devised that third leg on the fly, Vacuum / Plenum (Empty / Full), which ended up being the main protagonist: a double projection on a white wall, in black and white on one side and in color on the other, with films made in exactly the same enclaves with a difference of months, faces the vision of the deserted city during confinement with that of the crowded city. Strolling through the rooms of the Museum of Fine Arts in the company of its director and former director of the Prado Museum, Miguel Zugaza, he thus analyzes the creative process set up by the Barcelona artist: “Muntadas moves between the industrial fabric, the memory of the past and the old city and that new city of design and more politically programmed. And to record those images he chose points of view that are not those normally chosen by advertisers, that is, not necessarily the most interesting from an aesthetic point of view or the most beautiful ”.

Louise Bourgeois's spider together with the Guggenheim Bilbao, in the projection of the installation 'Vacuum / Plenum' by Muntadas.
Louise Bourgeois’s spider together with the Guggenheim Bilbao, in the projection of the installation ‘Vacuum / Plenum’ by Muntadas.

From his home in New York, where he has lived for almost 50 years, Antoni Muntadas explains via Zoom the arguments of his triple installation at the Bellas Artes: “In the city we have three types of phenomena. On the one hand, there are the ordinary phenomena: the city develops, political and urban decisions are made, regeneration takes place and the city advances. Then there are the extraordinary ones, which are floods, earthquakes, wars … And finally we have pandemics. I took Bilbao as an example from the point of view of the empty city, but with those three legs ”.

“In Bilbao I mounted three installations trying to touch all genres of art, although in reality what I wanted to build was a metaphor; basically what I did is a still life of Bilbao ”, continues the one who was a researcher and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and today a professor at the Venice Institute of Architecture, who vindicates the poetic side of his work : “My work is often viewed from politics, but I want it to be done from poetics too”. For this, the author of The empty city A concept was invented: that of anticipatory memory: “We were full and suddenly we were empty… but we knew that the city would fill up again. The city without the citizen has no meaning ”.

Bilbao during the confinement and after it, in the exhibition 'The empty city'.  The Euskalduna Palace.
Bilbao during the confinement and after it, in the exhibition ‘The empty city’. The Euskalduna Palace.
Antoni Muntadas / EPS

To reinforce this poetic-evocative aspect, Muntadas underlined his images with phrases by Walter Benjamin, in his opinion “one of the authors who have written the best about the city, and some of his quotes have a lot to do with what happened in Bilbao”. Phrases like: “The ambiguous really takes the place of the authentic: this is happening to the city.” Or: “It is difficult to find out where construction is still going on and where the ruin has begun.” Or also: “The feeling of belonging to a city is always united by its inhabitants.” It is not the first time that he incorporates ideas and phrases from philosophers and thinkers into his artistic-reflective artifacts. He already did it with Paul Virilio in his project Guadiana, where he used the concept of disappearance; with Giorgio Agamben in Finisterre, where they sent ideas such as the horizon, infinity, leaving (both projects are from 2017), and with Guy Débord in Venice, the moving Dérive Veneziane (2015). All three can be seen at the Bilbao exhibition.

The Zorrozaurre area, during and after confinement.
The Zorrozaurre area, during and after confinement. Antoni Muntadas / EPS

In general, it is not easy to decipher the conceptual jungle of Antoni Muntadas. But some of his explanations about what is happening today with some successful cities are crystal clear. For example, when he walks up to his computer screen and says: “Look, today cities are divided into empty, full and super full. The Venetians prayed that there would not be so much tourism. The pandemic came and the tourists disappeared, and the city was left in the hands of the citizens of Venice. Now they are begging for tourism to return. And the same has happened in Barcelona. Let’s see, it is not requested by the citizen, who would be delighted with his empty city, but the corresponding public and private organizations. The truth is that this phenomenon of tourism does not allow us to see cities well. The city has its own context, but the tourist does not know it, the rules of the game do not matter to him, he only pecks and takes photos to say that he was there. Tourism is very cruel in that sense ”.

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