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In the Basque Region of Spain: Art, Culture and a Puppy That Blooms

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It’s not every beach stroll that leads to a modernist masterpiece, let alone one set in the sea amid crashing waves.

After a bracing walk along the esplanade beside Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastián, Spain, I coaxed my family to keep going until we arrived at the western edge of La Concha Bay. There, anchored into the rocks and bashed by waves, was the 20th-century Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s “El Peine del Viento” (the Comb of the Wind): three nine-ton, rust-covered sculptures. They resembled monumental claws or talons reaching out, trying to connect — a potent symbol of Basque endurance over the centuries.

It was also a sign to my husband and 11-year-old twins, Freddie and Frida, that we’d be spending the weekend seeking out art in some unusual places.

With its wildly vertiginous and verdant landscape and proud heritage, the Basque region has long been a place I’ve wanted to explore with my family. So in February, we spent three crisp, sunny, culture-focused days driving from San Sebastián to Bilbao with several worthwhile stops in between.

By the second day, my kids didn’t want our adventure to end.

At sunset, people of all ages, including a boy holding a soccer ball, stroll along a seaside promenade with a filigreed iron fence. Above the blue water, there is a beautiful red-and-purple-streaked sky. On one side, two hills jut into the water. Atop one of the hills is a lit building.
In San Sebastián, a pedestrian area overlooks La Concha Bay. The city’s beaches and waterside setting are among its many draws.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

Driving into town earlier that day, past the grandly ornate buildings lining the final stretch of the Urumea River before it reaches the sea, Freddie declared San Sebastián “pretty cool” when he spied groups of kids carrying surfboards and heading toward the beach as they dodged fur-coat-clad shoppers hurrying along the sidewalks. With its world-renowned culinary scene, film festival and stunning natural setting on a crescent-shaped cove, San Sebastián can tick a lot of boxes for visitors with widely varying tastes. Even in February, the beach was buzzing, though only surfers in wet suits and dogs chasing sticks ventured into the water.

The city’s museums were alive with a similar mix of youthful energy and old-school European cultural appreciation. Tabakalera, a giant multipurpose art space inside a former cigarette factory, features exhibitions, film series and huge open-space lounges — some with table tennis and other amusements. It’s a place where kids can be exposed to accessible culture, but still have room to run around. There is also a vast library, a pizzeria and, on the top floor, a restaurant called LABe run by students at the Basque Culinary Center, so it can be a full-day experience.

At Tabakalera, kids are exposed to accessible culture but still have plenty of room to run around. On rainy days, the center can be a lifesaver for families.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

On a rainy day, Tabakalera could be a lifesaver for a visiting family. But it was sunny during our visit, and the city’s cathedral, with its vast expanses of jewel-toned stained glass, was especially beautiful. This summer we’ll be making a trip back to San Sebastián — both to swim in that beautiful cove and to see the Lighthouse, a monumental sculpture inside a derelict lighthouse on the city’s picturesque Santa Clara Island. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias dug up the floor of the structure and recreated in bronze the geological features of the rock beneath it. Reached by boat, it’s only open from June through late September.

The late-19th-century, neo-Gothic Buen Pastor Cathedral is one of the most distinctive buildings in San Sebastián.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

Unexpectedly, the San Telmo Museum, which we assumed would be a display of regional pride, turned out to be a highlight of our trip and, like the city itself, had something for everyone. Though one enters through a small, minimalist glass-and-concrete pavilion, the museum is built around a staggeringly beautiful Gothic monastery cloister with elaborately carved stone arches. Opening a side door to the dark and moody chapel, I was blown away to discover vast murals by one of my favorite Spanish artists, José Maria Sert, whose best-known works were sometimes painted on gold or silver leaf, and are more typically encountered in glamorous settings like Rockefeller Center or the palatial homes of wealthy clients rather than somber monastery chapels.

Around the corner were shimmering suits of armor, swords, maces and other weapons, which Frida — currently enamored of all things medieval — explained to us in all their lethal goriness.

Freddie’s most frequent question upon entering a museum is: “Do they have any cars?” Indeed, this museum did — groovy 1970s ones (along with scooters and bicycles). The vehicles highlighted the Basque region’s role in modernizing Spanish society from the 1960s to the ’80s, during the final years of the Franco dictatorship and the beginning of the country’s democracy. Going further back in time, a display of more than a dozen examples of the bizarrely elaborate 17th-century linen headwear traditionally worn by married and widowed women had Frida perplexed enough to declare (and not for the first time) that she would never marry.

Chillida Leku, on the outskirts of San Sebastián, is an art space devoted to the works of the 20th-century sculptor Eduardo Chillida. The artist’s abstract works are installed both outdoors and inside a farmhouse on the property.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

At the opposite pole of this potpourri of regional art is Chillida Leku, a space dedicated to the oeuvre of just one artist, Eduardo Chillida, whose monumental sculptural works — including variations of “El Peine del Viento,” which we saw on the beach the day before — are in (or often in front of) major art museums around the world. In the 1980s, the artist purchased the property — which ‌is near the ‌town of Hernani on the outskirts of San Sebastián and includes a 16th-century farmhouse — to create a compendium of his works installed both indoors and outside for pastoral contemplation. And even with two kids running around the grass trying to scare each other by jumping out from behind the artist’s massive yet elementally simple steel or stone or concrete sculptures, Chillida Leku (leku means “place” in Basque) provided delicious hours of just that. I was particularly struck by the way some of the largest sculptures branched out at the top and seemed to reach for one another but never touch, like many of the ancient trees nearby.

Inside the beautifully restored stone and wood farmhouse, a gallery attendant named Anabel got us all talking about the sculptures and provided a wealth of fascinating details about the artist, such as the fact that he trained for years with the local blacksmith — which explains why some of his early works incorporate elements of farm tools.

The Vizcaya Bridge connects the towns of Guecho and Portugalete near Bilbao, Spain. It was designed by the engineer and architect Alberto de Palacio y Elissagüe in the late 19th century and recognized by UNESCO in 2006.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

The seaside hamlet of Getaria, about 30 minutes west of San Sebastián, may be tiny, but it gave the world two titans who changed history in one fashion or another. The first was Juan Sebastiáno Elcano, the Spanish explorer who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 after Ferdinand Magellan was killed midvoyage in what is now the Philippines. He made it back to Spain after some 1,200 days at sea, returning with just one ship and only 19 men (five ships and some 265 crewmen departed Spain in 1519). He is a celebrated hero in his homeland, but is largely unknown outside Spain, where credit for the voyage goes almost entirely to Magellan.

In contrast, Getaria’s other native son has a name that is known far and wide and has become a global brand. Cristóbal Balenciaga — the couturier whom Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and other designers considered, in Dior’s words, “the master of us all” — was born here to a local fisherman and a seamstress in 1895. By his teens, he had clients among the Spanish nobility and eventually the royal family. He moved to Paris during the Spanish Civil War, where his talent and list of clients became legendary.

To great fanfare, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum opened in Getaria (in the former palace of his most ardent early client) in 2011, bringing the rarefied world of haute couture to this quaint village. Many of the stunning dresses on display were donated by the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco; the American philanthropist Rachel Mellon, known as Bunny; Balenciaga’s friend and protégé, Hubert de Givenchy; and other beau monde figures. It’s a fun romp for kids through the dimly lit galleries of fanciful clothing from a different age. This year’s exhibition, “Balenciaga Character,” focuses on the essence of his designs and what made them so innovative and beautiful that other designers felt almost obligated to follow his lead for decades.

How many UNESCO World Heritage sites allow you to drive your car on them? Heading farther west from Getaria, we bypassed downtown Bilbao and went straight to Las Arenas, the posh seaside enclave where the Nervión River meets the Bay of Biscay. Our goal was to see (and use) the Vizcaya Bridge, a pioneering type of suspension bridge built in 1893 and recognized by UNESCO in 2006. It was designed by Alberto de Palacio y Elissagüe (who also designed the iconic Atocha rail station in Madrid). The brief was to create a link between the towns of Guecho and Portugalete on opposite sides of the river without impeding the shipping traffic that was crucial to Bilbao’s booming steel industry. Palacio’s novel design was not a roadway but a suspended gondola that today shuttles about eight cars and a fair number of pedestrians across the river in one minute — as thrilling for my husband and me as it was for the kids. The deck supporting the gondola is more than 150 feet above the water, so even today’s tankers, aircraft carriers and a few airplanes have managed to get under it.

Back when it opened, there were set fares for pigs, cattle and funerals — today it’s just cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians (1 euro, or a little over a $1, round-trip for pedestrians). As we approached the soaring tower on the Portugalete side of the river, Freddie squeezed my hand and said, “This is the best day ever” — words he also uttered amid the giant redwoods of the Sequoia National Park in California.

A floral sculpture of a puppy by the artist Jeff Koons greets visitors to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

Ever since the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, the city has occupied an important perch on the European cultural travel circuit. Many kids will go bonkers over the giant floral puppy, a large petunia-based sculpture by Jeff Koons that stands in front of the museum. If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll want to know about the nearby “water park,” a fountain with variable jets of water spouting from the ground, where children and adults can cool off in the midday heat.

Whatever exhibitions are on view (until May 28, there’s a beautiful Joan Miró painting exhibition focused on the artist’s early years in Paris), a ride up the glass elevators in Gehry’s torquey, bendy central lobby is enough to satisfy most kids. Do not miss the long gallery of monumental spiral sculptures by Richard Serra; exploring the mazelike spaces created by the circular steel walls is, I’ve found, a home run for children.

By the time we got to Bilbao’s maritime museum, Itsasmuseum, we were pretty exhausted, and I told the ticket seller we’d be in and out in 30 minutes. In the end, the guards had to move us out at closing time as we were so engaged with the displays of antique model ships and paintings of historic shipwrecks. There are also more modern exhibitions about surf culture and the role of the river and the sea in Bilbao’s development, as well as what’s being done in the city to adapt to global warming and preserve the ecosystem that’s been its lifeblood. In warmer weather, a small dry dock in front of the museum allows visitors to explore various types of vessels in use on the city’s waterways.

“The Matter of Time,” a monumental sculpture by Richard Serra, dominates a gallery in the Guggenheim Bilbao.Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

Like San Sebastián, Bilbao has its own vast multipurpose cultural center in the Azkuna Zentroa Alhóndiga, a former wine and olive oil warehouse that sat empty for 30 years until the architect Philippe Starck reimagined it as a library, exhibition space and gym, where there are two indoor pools on the roof that anyone can visit for a few euros per day.

And splashing around in pools designed by Mr. Starck — one of which has a glass floor that looks down on the galleries below — counts as a cultural activity, no matter your age.


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Ehiko: The Multidisciplinary Artist Shaping Decolonization Through Art

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Ehiko, a multidisciplinary artist born in Lagos, Nigeria, now calls Toronto, Ontario, her home. An OCAD University graduate, she has gained recognition for her powerful and evocative works that delve into the complexities of decolonization, health and wellness, spirituality, sexual violence, and the representation of melanated hair.

Ehiko’s artistic journey began in the vibrant city of Lagos, where the rich cultural heritage and traditional artistry influenced her deeply. This foundation blossomed in Toronto, where she continued to experiment and manipulate raw canvas due to its flexibility. Her expressive palette and the use of various textiles pay homage to traditional Nigerian craftsmanship, creating a unique blend of contemporary and ancestral art forms.

Her works are not just visually striking but also laden with profound messages. Ehiko’s exploration of decolonization is evident in her large-scale multi-medium paintings, performances, drawings, and installations. Each piece she creates is a testament to her commitment to unravelling spirituality linked to traditional Afrakan masks, presenting a dialogue between the past and present.

One of the central themes in Ehiko’s work is health and wellness, particularly within the context of the Black community. She addresses the often-overlooked aspects of mental health and the importance of wellness practices rooted in African traditions. Through her art, Ehiko encourages a reconnection with these practices, promoting healing and resilience.

Sexual violence is another critical subject Ehiko tackles with sensitivity and boldness. Her works often depict the pain and trauma associated with such experiences while also highlighting the strength and resilience of survivors. By bringing these issues to the forefront, she fosters conversations that are essential for societal change and healing.

The representation of melanated hair in Ehiko’s art is a celebration of Black identity and beauty. Her pieces challenge societal norms and stereotypes, presenting Black hair in its diverse and natural forms. This representation is not only about aesthetics but also about reclaiming cultural identity and pride.

Ehiko’s exhibitions in Lagos and Toronto have garnered significant attention, and her private collection of purchased work is available upon request. Her contributions to the art world extend beyond her creations; she is also an advocate for using art as a tool for social change and empowerment.

In every piece, Ehiko weaves her experiences, heritage, and vision, creating a tapestry that speaks to the heart and mind. Her work is a powerful reminder of the role of art in decolonization and healing, and her journey continues to inspire and influence the global art community.

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Home + Away artwork opens in Vancouver’s Hastings Park

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A new art installation now towers over Vancouver’s Hastings Park fields in celebration of the city’s history of spectators and sports.

Home + Away is a sculpture by Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio, which opened Monday in the southeast end of the historic park.

It’s a 17-metre-tall structure that resembles a narrow set of bleachers — similar to the stands of the Empire Stadium, which stood on the site of the park from 1954 to 1993 and hosted The Beatles, among many others. It recalls a covered ski jump that stood there in the 1950s and the nearby wooden rollercoaster at the PNE.

The city says the public is invited to walk the stairs and sit on the benches.

“In addition to being visually striking, this artwork is intended to be ascended, sat on and experienced. It offers exciting experiences of height and views and provides 16 rows of seating for up to 49 people, making for a unique spectator experience when watching events at Empire Fields,” the city said in a release Monday.

The idea for the park to include public art was outlined in the Hastings Park “Master Plan,” first adopted by the city in 2010. The city says Han and Mihalyo first presented their design in 2015.

“It’s wonderful to see this piece realized within the context of such a well-used public space,” said Han.

Home + Away was inspired directly by the site history of spectatorship, and we hope it will connect Hastings Park users to that history and the majestic views of the environment for many decades to come,” added Mihalyo.

The artwork features a large light-up sign, in the style of a sports scoreboard, that reads “HOME” and “AWAY.”

 

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Bill Viola, Video Artist Who Established the Medium as an Integral Part of Contemporary Art, Dies at 73

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Bill Viola, whose decades-long engagement with video proved vital in establishing the medium as an integral part of contemporary art, died on July 12 at his home in Long Beach, California. He was at 73 years old. The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. The news of his passing was confirmed by James Cohan Gallery.

Viola’s works are centered around the idea of human consciousness and such fundamental experiences as birth, death, and spirituality. He delved into mystical traditions from Zen Buddhism to Islamic Sufism, as well as Western devotional art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in his videos, which often juxtaposed themes of life and death, light and dark, noise and silence. These explorations were achieved by submerging viewers in both image and sound with cutting-edge technologies for their time.

“I first used the camera and lens as a surrogate eye, to bring things closer, or to magnify them, to experiment with perception, to extend vision and make lengthy observations of simple objects,” Viola said in a 2015 interview. “Once you do that, their essence becomes visible. So I suppose I was always interested in the inner life of the world around me.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Viola created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast—all of which expanded the scope of the medium and established Viola as one of its most notable practitioner.

Video still of a man diving into water that has been reversed. The image is mostly black and teal.

In 2003 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Tate, London; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris jointly acquired Bill Viola’s 2001 three-channel video installation Five Angels for the Millennium.

Photo Kira Perov/©Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola was born in 1951. He grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York, and attended P.S. 20 in Flushing, before receiving his BFA in experimental studios from Syracuse University in 1973. There, he studied with visual art with the likes of Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris.

Following his graduation, between 1973 to 1980, Viola studied and performed with composer David Tudor in the music group Rainforest, which later became known as Composers Inside Electronics. He also worked as technical director at the pioneering video studio Art/tapes/22 in Florence, Italy from 1974 to 1976. During that time he encountered the work of other seminal video artists like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci.

Viola was subsequently an artist-in-residence at New York’s WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory between 1976 to 1983, wherein he created a series of works that premiered on television. He traveled to the Solomon Islands, Java, and Indonesia to record traditional performing arts between 1976 and 1977. Later that year, Viola was invited to show work at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, by cultural arts director Kira Perov, with whom he married and began a lifelong collaboration.

He was appointed an instructor in advanced video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California in 1983. He was the Getty Research Institute scholar-in-residence in Los Angeles in 1998 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000.

In 1985, Viola received with a Guggenheim Fellowship for fine arts, and later that decade, in 1989, he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. His work was also featured in some of the world’s most notable exhibitions, including Documenta VI in 1977, Documenta XI in 1992, the 1987 and 1993 editions of the Whitney Biennial, and the 2001 Venice Biennale.

In 1995, he represented the United States at the 46th edition of the Venice Biennale. For the pavilion, Viola produced the series of works “Buried Secrets,” including one of his most known works The Greeting, which offers a contemporary interpretation of Pontormo’s oil painting The Visitation (ca.1528–30). The Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and New York’s Guggenheim Museum commissioned the digital fresco cycle in high-definition video, titled Going Forth By Day, in 2002.

Viola’s work was the subject of a major 25-year survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, which subsequently toured internationally. His work has been the subject of major museum retrospectives in the years since, including at the Grand Palais in Paris (in 2014), the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (2017), the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (2017), and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (2019), as well as an exhibition pairing his work with that of Michelangelo at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2019.

Viola is survived by his wife Kira Perov, who has been the executive director of his studio since 1978, and their two children.

“One thing that’s very exciting about video that has turned me on since I first saw this glowing image way back in 1970 is that it can be so much,” Viola said in a 1995 with Charlie Rose on the occasion of this US Pavilion at the Biennale. “Furthermore, what’s really exciting is I don’t think it’s been since really the Renaissance where artists have been able to use a medium that one could say is the dominant communication form in society.”

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