Juxtaposing sun-bleached buildings, rough-hewn rocks, a commercial port and enigmatic interiors, Ghost Ship Homecoming, 1998, is comprised of photographs taken by Robert Rauschenberg on the occasion of his retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao between November 1998 and March 1999. The following exhibition that the Guggenheim Bilbao was to stage was a major retrospective of Eduardo Chillida's work, and the two artists met for what would be the last time. A development from his earlier collages based on images taken from the mass-media, Ghost Ship Homecoming is a personal eulogy inspired by their meeting, marking the respect he had for the Basque sculptor. Part collage, part painting and part photograph, Ghost Ship Homecoming brings found images together on a two-dimensional picture surface, creating a holistic composition that is a tribute to the city and the museum that the artists shared. Using a unique and innovative technique of transference to develop his photographs into a more personal and gestural form, Rauschenberg has distilled his direct experience of this time and of his memories of Chillida into haunting, large-scale artwork.
Central to the work is the ghostly form of a ship at dock, rendered in a mottled blue. The boat's prominent bow echoes the sweeping, titanium curves of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which was completed only a year before Rauschenberg's exhibition. Built on a former wharf situated on a curve of the Nervin River, Frank Gehry's celebrated design is reminiscent of a vast, majestic boat at rest. Rauschenberg celebrates the new arrival to the city, which has helped transform the banks of the river from its commercial and industrial past, to one based on culture and leisure. Rauschenberg has surrounded this central motif with imagery of Bilbao; the lower half of Ghost Ship Homecoming, for instance, is dominated by the view of the old customs building near to the museum, where Chillida's monumental Buscando La Luz IV (Looking for Light IV) was to stand. Fragmented images of rope-bound rock at the base of the work call to mind the earthy materiality of Chillida's work. By interweaving imagery that represents both the past and present, Rauschenberg has spun together a new narrative, inspired by real people and lived moments.
The dynamic marriage of abstraction and figuration found in Ghost Ship Homecoming has been a hallmark of Rauschenberg's work since the late 1950s. The work is made using a transfer process, which Rauschenberg first conceived in 1952 and has remained central to his artistic production ever since. In the early 1990s he made a breakthrough discovery, devising a way to use digital Iris prints and biodegradable vegetable dyes, which both suited his environmental concerns and allowed the transfer of his photographs to be most direct. Personal photographs have been the mainstay of Rauschenberg's work throughout his career; he had even considered becoming a photographer towards the end of his student days. Using only images generated by his own camera, he selected photographs that he had taken while travelling, editing them later in the studio. Photography enabled Rauschenberg to create work that reflected the artist's international and democratic sympathies, and manifest his love of ecumenical collecting. Giving precedence to his own image bank sharpened his desire to look and gave impetus to his artistic project. 'Taking the photo accomplishes several things.' Rauschenberg once said. 'One, it forces me to be in direct contact, intimately, unprotected, in an ambiguous outside world and therefore improve my sight. Also, it gives me a stockpile of both experiences and literal images to draw on for other works. So it's the experience of taking the photograph that keeps my mind open to unprogrammed images, uncontrolled, and then permits me to handle them rawly or allow them to be digested in a cacophony of other specifics.' (R. Rauschenberg quoted in Robert Rauschenberg : works, writings and interviews, Barcelona, 2006, p. 152).