OCTOBER 7, 2007
The Guggenheim Bilbao’s latest installation is a 1,400-pound bronze pun.
In the lobby of the Carlton Hotel in Bilbao, a discarded copy of the International Herald Tribune
informed me that Herbert Muschamp had passed away. This came as a shock: Not his death per se—rumors of his failing health had circulated even before he left his position as architecture critic for the New York Times
in 2004—but in Bilbao, of all places, I would have expected better notification than an abbreviated article set beside a half-finished crossword puzzle. My impulse was to tear out the obituary and wave it at the concierge, demanding that he assemble the staff for a moment of silence. “Without him,” I would stammer in rudimentary Catalan, “this hotel is not built. We is not here.”
And however poor the grammar, I wouldn’t be so far from the truth. In 1997, Muschamp published in the Times Magazine
a wild, run-amok review of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: “The word is out that miracles still occur, and that a major one has happened here.” He noisily announced the museum’s arrival as a defining cultural event, commanding the attention of architects and arts professionals, inevitably, but also beckoning forth tourists of all stripes, travel agencies, hotel chains, restaurateurs, advertising campaigns, even a James Bond action sequence. For younger critics, the piece is a lesson in ambition: Good criticism, it seems to say, doesn’t just describe or assess a building, but brings it into being. One is left with the nagging suspicion that, should the Guggenheim collapse into the river tomorrow, its baroque titanium swoops could be rebuilt with no blueprint more precise than Muschamp’s circus-top prose.
I had looked at the piece just that morning in anticipation of visiting the museum. One passage in particular halted me; as I walked along the Nervión River, I read it aloud several times over the sound of distant traffic, in thrall and disbelief. The paper of record’s upright tone descended into hallucination: “I took a break to look out the window,” writes Muschamp, “and saw a woman standing alone outside a bar across the street. She was wearing a long, white dress with matching white pumps, and she carried a pearlescent handbag. Was her date late? Had she been stood up?... When I looked back a bit later, she was gone. And I asked myself, Why can’t a building capture a moment like that? Then I realized that the reason I’d had that thought was that I’d just come from such a building. And that building I’d just come from was the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.”
The notion that a building might embody an iconic Hollywood starlet: It seemed flippant, scandalous...and, at the present moment, strangely apropos. Because I had come to Bilbao to gaze on another idol of the silver screen. Nothing as fleeting as the spectral white dress Muschamp had spied through the mist in 1997, but, rather, something solid and glinting in the sun, a body cast in bronze with modeled muscles, pectorals and abdominals rippling in perfect symmetry, hair in a permanent tousle, chin twisted to the right: This fourteen-hundred-pound apparition is none other than Sylvester Stallone. Clad in the high-waisted shorts and boxing gloves of his most indelible onscreen persona, Rocky, the celebrated “Italian Stallion” thrusts his fists upward, his body darkly polished and gleaming against Gehry’s glittery billows of titanium.
He is the Bilbao Balboa.
To be clear: I was not dispatched to Bilbao to write an appreciation of Herbert Muschamp. (For that I would have fared better in New York, perhaps at the footprint of the recently demolished 2 Columbus Circle, the ostensible subject of his ardent 2006 essay on coming to the city as a young gay man in the 1960s.) Rather, I am here to review a curious new adornment to Gehry’s achievement, an installation by the artist Jean Canard. The Bilbao Balboa stands at the top of the stairs that lead down into the museum’s entrance lobby, a few paces back from Jeff Koons’s giant topiary Puppy.
Little more than a month after its unveiling, visitors crowd around the sculpture for photo opportunities, pumping their arms upward like marionettes jerked on a string.
Given the other art-world heavyweights (so to speak) with permanent installations at the Guggenheim Bilbao, most of them from the United States, it is perhaps surprising that a major outdoor commission would be awarded to an artist with Canard’s limited public exposure. His relative obscurity, however, has largely been a function of the strict parameters of his highly original practice. For years, the midcareer French artist has cemented his reputation with a series of site-specific installations in the homes of prominent collectors, most of them European. It is an art of dislocations: a shelf brought into a parlor, a row of lawn ornaments placed along a side table. In more spectacular instances, golf carts insinuate themselves into closets, bedposts hang from candelabras. The resulting experience is an utter upending of domestic space, coupled with the seizing conviction that the home has at last received its finishing touches. In short, Canard has concocted an unlikely cocktail of institutional critique and interior decorating.
The Bilbao Balboa is Canard’s first major public installation. Unlike other works scattered over the Guggenheim’s grounds, such as Louise Bourgeois’s gargantuan bronze spider Mother
or Daniel Buren’s Arcos Rojos
, Canard had no hand in the sculpture’s design and fabrication. Rather, it is a readymade of sorts, one already familiar to residents of Philadelphia and the stalwarts who have followed Rocky
through its several sequels. The statue first appeared in Rocky III
, when the city of Philadelphia honors its hometown hero by installing his bronze likeness on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum. (Never mind that the location’s connection to Rocky makes sense only within the context of the original film, which is defined by Rocky’s solitary run up the museum’s steps, set to the bounding rhythm of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.”) Stallone had commissioned the sculpture, and after filming, he arranged for its installation at the Wachovia Spectrum sports arena. For Rocky III
’s premiere in 1983, however, the statue was returned to the museum steps, and despite the Philadelphia Museum’s vigorous appeals for its removal, there it stayed. Eventually, the museum itself footed the rigging bill for returning the statue to the Spectrum. “It is not appropriate to the museum,” stated its public-relations department, “nor to that space. We don’t want to appear like snobs, but it just isn’t a work of art. It’s a movie prop.”
The museum had failed to consider the full implications of its argument: If the Balboa statue was a movie prop, then the steps were indisputably a movie set. In the cultural imagination of Philadelphia, they were the Rocky Steps. When the statue returned from the Spectrum for the filming of Rocky V
in 1990, a South Philadelphia member of the state legislature called for a nonbinding resolution to keep the Balboa where it belonged. After much agitation, the Philadelphia Arts Commission, which had jurisdiction over the steps, decided in the museum’s favor by a margin of 4–3, and the statue was removed from the premises—though not for long.
Coinciding with the franchise’s purported last sequel, Rocky Balboa
, in 2006, the Philadelphia Art Commission designated a permanent home for the statue on a grassy knoll adjacent to the steps, achieving a ham-fisted compromise between the physical reality and cinematic representation of the city. At a ceremony for its unveiling, Philadelphia’s mayor, John Street, acknowledged the Rocky Steps as the city’s greatest tourist attraction and a focal point for civic pride. In that respect, the Balboa might be considered a more powerful American totem than the Liberty Bell.
The Balboa on the knoll is in fact one of three sculptures that were fabricated. The second is currently housed in the San Diego Hall of Champions, a privately owned sports museum. In 2007, Canard, with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation, negotiated the purchase and transport of the third Balboa to a permanent position in Bilbao. Here in Spain, the Balboa has shed any residual embarrassment from its peregrinations through Philadelphia, and its strapping arms seem capable of upholding two typically divergent traditions of sculpture, the civic monument and the conceptual prank. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Museum has embarked on a ten-year construction plan to enhance its visitor amenities and expand its exhibition space. The plan calls for considerable underground excavation, which will allow space for the installation of new contemporary galleries directly beneath the Rocky Steps. The project’s lead architect is Frank Gehry.
That Idiot Song
The day after reading the obituary, I meet Canard for lunch. It was a difficult interview to arrange: His gallery in Zurich first demanded I demonstrate my long-standing familiarity and fascination with his previous projects (a fascination, I confess, undiminished by following them solely through written accounts). Then they insisted I not ask Canard about any of them. Awkward parameters, but a freelancer accepts his lot.
At Canard’s suggestion, we together sample tripotx
, a local variety of sausage made from lamb’s blood. Despite having stayed in Bilbao since the statue’s unveiling the month prior, Canard is pale, and he sports a blazer two sizes too large for his slight frame. Sitting across from him, I notice a white spot of lather on his cheekbone and hedge on whether to bring it up. The aberration is ideally suited to his face, like some celebrity’s trademark mole blanched white. He consumes food with considerable force, wiping up half a plate while I still poke at the sausage’s blackened consistency. I inquire if Canard he has heard the news of Muschamp’s death. Mouth full, he nods vigorously. “You know,” he adds between swallows, “he also was from Philadelphia.”
What is it about Philadelphia that interests him? “When the commission from the Guggenheim came...” Canard pauses over his blood sausage, as if his story line might emerge from its intestine casing, then looks up. “This museum here, it had brought something specially American to this part of Spain, and I thought to bring more. Nothing from New York, which is barely America. Years ago, I went to Philadelphia. Just once for a single day from New York, I took the train to see the Duchamps. I had come for the Large Glass
and Etant donnés
, but it was the Balboa that struck me. Stayed with me. Where he stood on the steps, with the vista of the city before him. Benjamin Franklin staring from the rotary. For a pop icon, it was very old-world...very Paris. Down the boulevard, it was the gaze of a monarch. Absolute. The gaze of the Balboa possessed the city.”
Here the difference in our ages feels glaring. Whereas Canard would have been twenty-three when the Balboa last stood on the steps for Rocky V
, I was all of eleven. I admit to him that I have never seen the Balboa in situ, not even on the grassy knoll it currently occupies. My one and only trip to Philadelphia was three years ago. But once there, I had of course charged up the Rocky Steps—had in fact felt compelled
At that, his eyes widen, almost to an unnerving degree: “Exactly
! That is precisely
it. The Balbao’s run. I watched it all day, the people hurrying up. All types. What could be more beautiful, tout de monde
out of breath and holding out their arms? And loudly they hum that idiot song. Everyone knew what precisely
needed to be done. No instruction, spontaneous! You know...”—his voice lowers—“...in America, I saw this in just one other place. This instance of just knowing
. To meet a collector, once I went to Dallas. And I visited the book depository where the shooter stood. The others there, they lined up along windows and cocked their arms to hold imaginary rifles. Their fingers pulled the trigger. Some recoiled. And down on the street, there are painted Xs where the bullets hit. I stood on one and looked back up to the window. Little figures there pointed toward me. I was the target..." Staring back down at his sausage, he adds, “Rocky
and this Zapruder film, they must be the prime documents of American cinema. To be in the American physiology like that. In its muscle memory.”
Muschamp rings in my ears: “Bilbao,” the critic chirps, “is a sanctuary of free association.”
Pressing, I ask Canard whether he hoped the Bilbao Balboa would provoke a similarly spontaneous response. An intriguing possibility, considering that most everything I had read on Canard dwelled on the purely retinal delights his interventions afford. Certainly, I had read the Balboa as such: The notes scribbled during my visit say something about the “juxtaposition of textures and patina,” and “slant rhymes of flexed muscles and fish scales.” And as much as Duchamp’s first readymade, Fountain
, drew attention to the beauty of plumbing’s porcelain curves, Bilbao bequeaths to the Balboa the bronze pizzazz of Europe’s finest civic sculptures. But Canard’s sudden rumination suggests that he is interested in how Rocky functions as a social pact—the Balboa as potlatch. Does he expect from American tourists a collective performance in Bilbao? The statue is, after all, positioned at the top of another stairway. Was the goal of the work to lure visitors into assuming that same theatrical display—fists hoisted—of empty triumph?
“Here, the Balboa will do what it will,” shrugs Canard, suddenly laconic. His hands hover above the table, and with a flourish, he snatches up our utensils and distributes anew the forks and knives. Seemingly content with his small gesture of rearrangement, he settles into the approximate silence of single-word responses. I eat the remaining blood sausage with the aid of two spoons.
After lunch, I walk back to the hotel. It’s early evening and just starting to rain. I haven’t brought much in the way of research, just the Rocky
DVD. I slip it into my laptop while writing notes for my piece... It doesn’t take long to realize how little of Rocky
I remember. My memory has in fact reduced the entire experience of the film to its audio track, “Gonna Fly Now”—that “idiot song,” as Canard put it—and Rocky, swollen and bloodied at the end of the fight, yelling for Adrian. And even that sounds different now that I’ve seen Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire
—the long nasal cry of “Aaaadrian” so echoes Brando’s “Stellaaaa” that I’m convinced Stallone chose the name for its long a
sound, as if it were a shortcut to Method acting. I keep expecting Rocky to slur that he coulda been a contender.
But in the beginning, here is Rocky, shambling home after clumsily winning a club fight. He kicks at trash along the curbs, passing by closed-up storefronts and underneath elevated trains, tossing a ball as he walks. His boxing gym comes into view, its hand-painted sign eroded into the brick and surrounding graffiti. Teenagers gather on a street corner, warming themselves around a fire lit in a garbage can, taking swigs from a bottle of wine. There is an odd sympathy between the Balboa and his city. His slumped shoulders mirror the cracked-pane facades and seem to prop them up.
Later, he comes by the docks, and—you know, maybe it’s just the shock of seeing Balboa in bronze, or the lingering effects of the afternoon’s blood sausage, but I swear Rocky has just wandered onto the Bilbao waterfront. Everything’s rust and brown currents, dented steel drums and cinder blocks in unclaimed stacks. And here is Rocky, a two-bit loan shark’s enforcer, chasing his mark off a forklift. “Not the face!” begs the mark. “You gotta pay the bank,” bellows back the Balboa. Smoke and steam emerge from unspecified sources, a foghorn sounds over the whir of grinding machinery. It may be the Delaware River, or it may be the Nervión.
I had even forgotten why the big fight happens in the first place: Apollo Creed, the heavyweight pastiche of Muhammad Ali, bursts into Philadelphia spouting rhymes and sporting a three-piece suit, promoting his Bicentennial fight. When his opponent drops out, and no other ranked fighters step forward, Creed suggests the fight needs a novelty. Why not offer a “Snow White” local fighter a shot at the biggest title of the world, on the nation’s biggest birthday? “That’s very American,” croaks Creed’s manager. “No,” responds Creed, “It’s very smart.”
The feel-good story, then, is a fix from the start. The land of opportunity is a marketing slogan, an easy sale for any decent promoter. Lest the redemption theme present itself too suddenly, Rocky
offers a telling first shot: Perched among the rafters of the church hall where the Balboa wins his club fight, a low-grade fresco of Christ blesses the proceedings. A child is born in Philadelphia. A miracle occurs in Bilbao. Cleanse the waters of the Nervión, and out of rust comes titanium, comes bronze. The press department will arrange for proper photo documentation.
Puppy Stands Witness
“The Bilbao Effect” has become worldwide shorthand for the economic benefits of hosting a major cultural attraction. There is also a Balboa Effect. An initial burst of a hundred thousand visitors a month, and since then a steady million per year. Rocky
earns $117 million worldwide, Rocky II
$200 million. Frank Gehry is awarded the National Medal of Arts (1998) and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1999). Rocky
is nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning best picture and best director. Success spawns a franchise: Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens envisions a global brand with branches in Las Vegas, Berlin, and Venice, and rumors build of additional projects in Rio de Janeiro, Abu Dhabi, Singapore. In II
, Rocky wins the title against Apollo Creed, beats Clubber Lang in a rematch, defeats the Russian Ivan Drago after he kills Creed in the ring; in V
, he takes the fight to the street, proving one last time—that is, until Rocky Balboa
in 2006—he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood.
I meet Canard again the next day for a walk through the museum. We spend most of the visit navigating Richard Serra’s permanent installation, The Matter of Time
, a sequence of bent industrial steel walls and curved enclosures. It feels both factory and fun house. Later, we sit outside on a bench a few paces from the Balboa. The flow of visitors is steady. Some arrive in cabs with their luggage in tow, as if they’ve come straight from the airport. A few stop to pose by the Balboa, arms thrust skyward, carry-on bags by their side.
I try to explain to Canard the revelations of watching Rocky
the night prior: the Rust Belt resemblance between Bilbao and Philadelphia, the corresponding narratives of redeeming a deindustrialized city with a splashy publicity stunt. Unable to foster new enterprises or provide widespread economic security, neoliberalism offers up a development scheme rooted in sentimentality. Was he thinking of those same parallels when he brought the Balboa to Bilbao?
But Canard doesn’t seem so interested in talking about the Balboa. Frankly, he looks exhausted, slumping into his oversize jacket. He confesses he was up all night making phone calls. “I must find Larry Hagman. So I am calling all contacts, anyone who might make an introduction to me. Some collector or another, I hope.” He turns to me, “You don’t have a Hagman connection, do you? Some colleague of a colleague, perhaps?”
Larry Hagman? Larry Hagman, son of Mary Martin? Major Anthony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie
, JR Ewing in Dallas
“Yes, Dallas. I thank you for yesterday, it reminded me of the book depository. That city. Dallas
the show, I think, is always Dallas the crime scene. Perhaps you are old enough to remember ‘Who Shot JR’? A global occurrence. The JFK assassination, it was the first televised
is its sequel. JR is JFK is JR. So I would like now to organize a reenactment, of Chris Burden’s great Shoot
.” Canard poses his arms as if he were holding a rifle. “And I will shoot Larry Hagman—pop
—in the arm. I would like it at the Kimbell. Or perhaps Beaubourg.”
Canard begins to laugh. “Who shot JR? You shout, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ Here's the answer: A Frenchman! Can you imagine? Or,” he adds, “if I can’t convince Hagman to be shot, perhaps JR will shoot me. But that is so familiar: Americans slay the French all the time. It could be a piece for television. On CBS.”
His pale cheeks flushed, Canard rocks back and forth, slightly giddy at the prospect. I can’t say that I share his enthusiasm. For the first time I see in Canard a flash of a Tocqueville complex, an old-world conviction that we Americans need a Frenchman to tell us who we really are. And the tone of this particular proposal strikes me as somewhat mean-spirited, a glib elision of trashy television and genuine tragedy.
I wonder how much Canard knows about the piazza where we’re sitting. It’s named after Jose Maria Agirre, a guard who was shot and killed here in 1997. He had foiled a terrorist attack, preventing members of the armed Basque separatist group ETA from installing flowerpots laden with grenades and rifles on the museum grounds. Presumably, they were planting the weapons in preparation for an attack during the opening ceremonies scheduled for the following week. When Agirre asked the separatists for identification, they shot him and abandoned their vehicle. There is an unconfirmed but often repeated rumor that Jeff Koons had been installing at the time and had in fact complained about the proximity of the flowerpots to his giant topiary Puppy
. As soon as the shots were fired, he fled the scene—fled in a cab to the airport; fled Bilbao on the first available flight, which was to Paris; then fled Europe on the Concorde; didn’t stop fleeing until he was back in New York. Puppy
still stands as a witness to the crime.
But no matter. Basque politics, guerilla kidnappings, cease-fires—that’s complicated. Much better to remember Muschamp’s response to Frank Gehry’s invitation to look at the building: “Look at the building? What building? Oh, no, I came to Bilbao because somebody recommended the local variety of blood sausage, or because I’m interested in Basque separatism.” Keep your eyes on the museum, Muschamp tells us, and keep to the story line: A child is born, a building is built.
And it’s the story that will stick. The Balboa knows this to be so. Canard and I start to walk along the Nervión, looking at the passing boats and the construction in the distance. He’s talking more about Hagman, but mostly I’m thinking back to Stallone. Toward the beginning of Rocky
, the Balboa walks a twelve-year-old local home after he finds her among the teenagers drinking on the corner. He warns her against coarse slang and bad company. “They don’t remember you
,” he intones, “they remember the rep.” The girl is unappreciative. She calls him creepo and reminds him that he’s just another bum from the neighborhood. But the Balboa, sage, speaks truth. With time, reality becomes irrelevant; only rumor and legend remain.
And so shall it be with the Bilbao Balboa. Canard has requested that no plaque or identifying label be placed anywhere near the statue; nor will official photo documentation be distributed to the media or made available on the Guggenheim website. A few enterprising visitors will request the artist’s name and work’s title from the information desk in the lobby, but for most the statue will be a passing curio and, later on, an unverifiable memory. Was it just a confusion of words? The Guggenheim Balboa, the Rocky Bilbao. Can’t wait for the sequel.
A review of a recent installation by Jean Canard at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao failed to identify the proper title of the work. Though commonly referred to as “The Bilbao Balboa,” the official title for the installation is Palookaville
All images: Stills from the films Rocky, Rocky III, and Rocky Balboa. In accordance with the wishes of the artist, the Guggenheim Foundation declined repeated requests for photo documentation.