Riding on the Edge: Art, Identity and the Motorcycle

Exhibition review Riding on the edge: Art Identity and the Motorcycle 7 February- 11 April 1999 Waverley City Gallery Curated by John Pigot

Riding on the edge: art, identity and the motorcycle, is a powerful thematic exhibition which demonstrates how an idea can be poetic and curatorially artistic without a welter of high-quality art works.
There three artists in the exhibition whose work is memorable and even exquisite. Eamon O'Toole is one, with a pair of sculptures which look just like life-size motorbikes (in spite of being made with blow-away materials). Stewart MacFarlane is another, with his Suburban Night, a detached fantasy of a young woman idly tootling down a suburban street yet confidently bestriding the century's most popular symbol of masculine potency. Finally, in a haunting photograph, Tracey Moffat frames a distant submissively prostrated woman between the dominant close-up of wheel and chassis of a heavy motorbike, apparently owned by a booted woman with painted fingernails brandishing a stockwhip. The fetishistic character of the motorbike is appropriately exploited to express a libidinal economy of domination; but the image - not unlike MacFarlane's - is artistic in a teasing way, inviting you to call upon your memory of clich├ęs in sexual depravity from popular culture to work out 'what is happening'.

True to the vast popularity of the theme, the power of the exhibition rests on an almost freakish inclusiveness of visual production, ranging from documentary photographs of threatening bikie corroborees to museological objects of mass-production (such as a packaged Bikie Barbie), from recent naive photorealism to historical examples of graphic design advertising motorcycles, from books and cartoons to cult movies and their advertisements, from high art to unclassifiable objects of applied art (such as Richard Paddington's Motorcycle Teapot as bike with muscular rider and derriere female humping the pillion seat). This is not a show for people who demand good taste. It is, on the other hand, a show for people who demand relevance to contemporary ideas in their embrace of cultural otherness and the political and aesthetic margins which define identity.

The curator, Dr John Pigot, has identified a theme of centrality not only to the popular imagination but to the socio-political heartland of the curatorium. It is a show through which you can not only gain an all-too-immediate sense of motorcycling tribalism - institutionally sexualized and crudely authoritarian in spite of its anti-establishment tear-away individualism - but you can also ponder the bearing of such marginal archetypes upon the construction of mainstream road culture. By looking at the passions of the outsiders, the dangerous riders on the perilous edge, you suddenly become aware of the reciprocal defaults of commuter culture; you realize that there is an unspoken dominance of the family automobile, the preened suburban house, a commitment to security, upward mobility and the monitored amelioration of the welfare of children.

The dialectical world of public values, in other words, is bizarrely communicated to the innocent spectator by simply thrusting his or her nose into the greasy gleam of the motorcycling subculture. You experience a certain unease. I did. To take in the full implication of the show is somehow sublime, as of the excited terror - what for most people is a huge step - of mounting a motorbike.

The exhibition opens up the social analysis of motorcycling subcultures. There are many of them, from well-dressed bureaucrats who simply like to get to work without being confined to metropolitan traffic jams, to women defying the stereotyping of their gender. Riders have an identity which reflects the taxonomy of their machines. Anyone nipping around on a 250cc job is barely initiated and definitely not a contender for the heroic status of either the feudal-style Harleys or the technospace culture of the streamlined designs in more recent times, those aerodynamic sheaths which betoken the good fortunes of Japanese manufacturing industry.

Motorbikes are easily personalized commodities. In spite of the transparency of their assembly, they make you think of their use along heavy roads rather than the factory which produced them. Motorbikes more readily act as subcultural symbols than other consumer goods. So deeply tied are they to the identity of specific groups that one forgets their basis in capital. Especially in Anglo-countries, they are a paradoxical product of capitalism which is geared to escaping from bourgeois identity.

This may not be so clear, say, in Italy where limited road-space makes motorbikes more practical than cars. A fine photorealist work by Ashley Jones, Moto Guzzi with Caravaggio, shows a stylish-looking machine in front of reproductions of Caravaggio at the baroque artist's most camp. The machine is simpatico beside high culture, thoroughly bourgeois and refined.

This is a superb exhibition. Especially given the metaphor of its wheels, what a shame the show did not travel!

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