Few things are capable of diverting The Duchess from cake when necessity arises, but Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse sculptures probably top the somewhat exclusive list. Certainly they were powerful enough to draw us both in whilst en-route to the cafe at the Guggenheim in Bilbao back in 1999. They kept us captivated for a significant amount of time too.
I have said in the past that sculpture rarely appeals, but there is an argument that says Serra’s pieces are hardly sculpture at all and are instead dynamic, monumental architectural statements. Nothing can quite prepare you for the immutable presence of mass and of the deliciously unsettling feeling of tension as you walk through and around work which is carefully designed to offer a compelling architectural experience. The interplay of space, form, light and texture is everything. As such, the collection that makes up the ‘Matter of Time’ works perfectly within Frank Gehry’s famously sculptural building, presenting a simultaneously sympathetic and contrasting experience. Curvilinear forms draw you in and around on yourself as you pass through spaces that ebb and flow, yet always there is the pressure of looming mass and dark textures of weathered steel. It really is extraordinary.
There is something fitting too about Serra’s work being permanently housed in Bilbao for there are such strong links to be made between the forms and materials of the artwork to those of the shipyards that are such a central theme to the history of the city. And as with Chillida’s work there is certainly something of the Basque sensibility within Serra’s work: powerful, dynamic and very much rooted in traditions of earth, water and industry.
We have not been back to Bilbao since that pre-Millennial visit yet the thought of seeing Serra’s works again is a compelling pull. Perhaps they will once again divert The Duchess from the prospect of cake.
Coincidentally, that pre-Millennial visit to Bilbao was to be the first time I heard the sounds of The Aislers Set, their 1998 ‘Terrible Things Happen’ set being on constant rotation on my headphones during travel and downtimes alike. How then could the experience of Bilbao not significantly infiltrate the notes I penned for their subsequent ‘The Last Match’ LP? It couldn’t, and if you will allow me a(nother) moment of self-indulgence can I tell you that those brief notes for that record remain some of my personal favourites, although I admit that context perhaps is everything. Coincidentally too the electricity pylons that feature in the last stanza of those words are the ones that punctuate the flood plain of the Exe valley; the ones that nestle next to the village we now call home. As we are apt to say so often, it all fits. And oh, it really does.
So the Aislers Set hold a special place in my heart for this and other reasons. Mostly, it has to be stressed, for the fact that their records have always felt like such dear and close friends. Records infused with shared reference and experience despite being made an ocean and a continent away: Distance perhaps making the connections stronger instead of stretching them to breaking point. After all, often it is those connections that are geographically close which we end up neglecting and taking for granted. Perhaps too that is just me.
Any of the songs then on ‘Terrible Things Happen’ could certainly be the tune of choice for this entry, yet it is the endlessly engaging, ebullient, effervescent yet simultaneously self-effacing ‘Long Division’ that gets the nod. For ‘Long Division’ really is the sound of Aislers Set at their upbeat Pop best. Frothing with fizzbomb guitars colliding with clapping hands, shuffling tambourine and the tinnitus tinkle of keys, it is a song that feels effortlessly tossed to the air: A girl-group shamble through the evening streets, picking up shots of tequilas as it goes. Abstracting numbers; exponential waves; crushed, divided and squared: Math Rock could never hope to be so humorous and deft. Through it all Linton’s infamously laconic vocal is perfectly framed; a hesitant glance from behind a fringe; a mumble of apology that is no apology at all but is instead a quiet howl of unbending intent. Ending with a curt nod a secret smile. Soft yet strong. Soft yet strong.