Laura Fisher on the bicycle in contemporary art
One of the centrepieces of Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria is a fresh iteration of Ai’s Forever sculpture. Located in the foyer, the sculpture consists of a towering arch of over 1,500 interconnected bicycles, all uniformly produced to a minimalist design. The Forever series is now among Ai’s most known works, having been exhibited in many configurations in museums and public spaces in London, Taiwan, Taipei, Venice and Toronto and elsewhere. The namesake is China’s Yong Jiu (which translates as“Forever”) brand of bicycle. Established in the 1940s, the prized Forever brand dominated China’s cycling culture for several decades before the car became more widely used. For Ai there is a tainted nostalgia about the Forever bicycle. In the remote village where he was raised after his father – an enlightened and popular poet – was exiled from Beijing, the bicycle was not only needed for travel but for transporting things. It was also out of reach to all but the well-off, a high status object of intense desire for a child like Ai living in poverty.
In the first version of the work (in 2003) Ai suspended real Forever bicycles in a circle, and removed the chains, handlebars, pedals and seats. Eliminating these features set him on a path of abstraction, which in turn allowed him to introduce ambiguity to the object and play with patternation. Subsequent versions of the work left the readymade quality of the original behind and embraced a manufactured aesthetic, with the sculptures acquiring spectacular architectural proportions. The bicycles seem to be self-propagating as grand crystalline structures, yet they are strikingly immobilised: ossified in gleaming stainless steel. In light of Ai’s ongoing critique of the constraints on liberty and individuality in China, it is hard not to interpret Forever as a potent vision of arrested movement, and its mass-produced elements as a metaphor for a particular kind of circumscribed sociality. A more lo-fi object and performance that attests to the importance of bicycles (and flowers) to this critique is Ai’s With Flowers. Daily, from 30 November 2013, Ai placed fresh flowers into the basket of a bicycle leaning on a tree outside his Beijing studio gate to protest the confiscation of his passport (in 2011), and documented the bouquets on Flickr. His passport was finally returned in July 2015.
The NGV’s installation is just the most recent in a long line of commissions and adaptations of Forever. And you might ask why the work has had such longevity. While it is no doubt a testament to Ai’s growing fame, it surely also says something about the bicycle’s symbolic currency at this historical moment. In the coming years, the bicycle is likely to be a significant gauge of our cities’ progress towards finding a more sustainable equilibrium and it is a very tangible instance of the idea that a personal choice, when embraced en masse, can translate swiftly into extraordinary collective good. In this light, the scaled-up Forever seems to be suggestive of the grand promise associated with this disarmingly simple tool of urban transformation.
What is striking about the bicycle in the age of electronics is that it is an honest machine: its means of operating are transparent and its action truthfully felt. As Ai himself points out “They’re designated for the body and operated by your body. There are few things today that are like that”. As a machine comprising simple cogs and wheels that efficiently convert human energy into movement, the bicycle has unique kinetic and haptic qualities that lend themselves to aesthetic investigation. Thus, while Ai’s bicycles are polished and quiescent, many other artists have employed the bicycle’s movement to activate different kinds of individual and social behaviour. For example, in 1997, as part of the Skulptur Projecte in Münster, Germany, artists Elin Wikström and Anna Brag staged an event called Returnity. They engineered nine bicycles to travel backwards when they were pedalled forwards, and equipped them with training wheels and a rear-view mirror.
A bicycle club was set up in a public park for three months, providing instructions to members of the public who attempted to ride the altered bicycles. In the end, over 2,000 people participated with about a quarter of these returning again and again to improve their skills. These bicycles were a prop for heightening people’s spatial and sensory awareness. They also created an unusual social space. As Maria Lind remarked, it “was a playful test that referenced lifelong learning [and] connectivity in a globalised world” and an exercise in “radically rethinking and deliberately disorienting one’s naturalised behaviours”. Lind’s comments about Returnity are a reminder that the bicycle’s humility as a human scaled machine paradoxically gives it great power. Not only is it open to inexhaustible experimentation, it can engage the body and mind in such a way as to galvanise both personal autonomy and social affinity.
This was further demonstrated by the Shedding Light project that featured in the 2015 OzAsia Festival in Adelaide. Shedding Light was a two-year collaboration between Tutti Arts, a multi-arts organisation for artists with a disability in Adelaide, and Perspectif, a sister organisation in Yogyakarta 2013. Among the many mediums through which the artists explored the Indonesia–Australia relationship were creatively constructed carts inspired by the Indonesian kaki lima (street vendor carts), and vehicles inspired by Sepeda Lampus, the four-wheeled pedal cars augmented with neon lights and sound systems hired out at the Sultan’s Palace square in Yogyakarta. This part of Shedding Light was realised in collaboration with James Dodd, an artist who has long engaged in bicycle modification as part of a practice concerned with informal and incidental forms of public creativity. Dodd fabricated the pedal cars using two bicycles so that they could accommodate a Tutti artist, a support companion and a passenger. The neon light frames were modelled upon designs created by three Tutti artists: a unicorn (William Gregory), a shark (Joel Hartgen) and a three-headed snowman (James Kurtze). Over several nights, passengers would be taken a short distance around the Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza to a special location where a short performance by another Tutti artist was staged for them. Like Returnity, Shedding Light involved modifying bicycles to facilitate a creative social intervention, in this case tied to the aim of enhancing the visibility of Tutti artists. As Dodd relates, what made the project so rewarding and unusual was that it created intimate encounters between festival audiences and the Tutti artists out in the streets, far from the organised formality of ticketed events.
Also using public space creatively, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination in the UK have mobilised bicycles to serve quite different ends. The Lab is an activist organisation that has devised inventive forms of creative civil disobedience to assert an alternative to the nexus of capitalism, consumption and environmental destruction. They try “to open spaces where the imaginative poetic spirit of art meets the courage and rebelliousness inherent to activism”. In 2009, the Lab developed the Bike Bloc as a form of direct action for the UN Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen (the unsuccessful forerunner to the recent Paris Climate Talks). Hundreds of people worked over several weeks to design and weld activist bicycles and practise “street action cycle choreography”. Some of these were paired tall-bikes that gave riders a great height advantage (confiscated by police before the protest), while others were equipped with megaphones that played music, sirens and abstract sounds in synchronicity. One such bike recently featured in Disobedient Objects, an exhibition developed by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which toured to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. As the video documentation shows, the Lab embraced the model of an insect swarm in order to create a dispersed field of sound and activity that drew police attention in different directions. What makes this action so compelling artistically is the intersection of DIY cycle culture and the lessons of radical theatre and performance. The bicycle was assessed for what kind of form it might contribute to coordinated protest, notably creating a fluid field ofassembling and disassembling bodies and sound.
A final project that demonstrates the power and promise of the bicycle is the 6,000-kilometre journey taken by “Artist as Family”: Meg Ulman, Patrick Jones, their two children (aged 11 and 2) and pet dog. As writers, gardeners and environmentalists, Ulman and Jones exemplify the ecological sensibility that a growing number of us embrace. In 2015 they decided to take up this environmental imperative as an artistic-philosophical project. Over a period of 14 months the family rode their bicycles from their home in Daylesford in Victoria to Cape York in Northern Queensland, during which time they lived by foraging (they had extensive knowledge of edible plants), fishing, trapping, exchanging labour for food on farms, and through the hospitality of friends and strangers. Their blog posts and book attest to the heightened engagement with the world that bicycle travel affords: two-year-old Woody was able to identify an enormous variety of animals and plants, and meaningful connections were made with the many strangers who invited the family into their homes, sharing their knowledge and stories. The physical demands of cycling focused their minds upon the needs of the body and the available sources of energy replenishment.
As these projects demonstrate, the bicycle is a nimble tool for individual and collective agency and a catalyst for knowledge creation, self-awareness and meaningful social encounters. It is a technology that serves our need for self-reliance and exploration, without surpassing the body’s capabilities. In an era in which we are incarcerated by our affluence – through work, debt, declining physical and mental health, and an exploitative and wasteful dependence upon the declining natural resources – the bicycle is the ultimate dissident object and symbol of freedom.
- ^ Dewi Cooke (2015) ‘Ai Weiwei brings Forever Bicycles sculpture to NGV’. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September, 2015. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/ai-weiwei-brings-forever-bicycles-sculpture-to-ngv-20150912-gjkx5d.html ; Christopher Jobson (2013) ‘Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles Reconfigured Using 3,144 Bikes in Toronto’, This is Colossal, 8 October 2013. http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/10/forever-bicycles-ai-weiwei-toronto/.
- ^ Images of the flowers on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/aiww/with/16618237832/.
- ^ Nie Xin,‘The Bike that is forever China’, Shanghai Daily, 2 September 2008: en.china4auto.com/ennews/html/else/20080902/12203186164120.html
- ^ Maria Lind, ‘Returning on bikes: notes on social practice’ in Nato Thompson (ed), Living as Form: Sociallyengaged art from 1991–2011, New York: Creative Times Books & Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012
- ^ Personal correspondence with the author, 27 November 2015. See also the Shedding Light short film youtu.be/oc4jtX_zeFk
- ^ Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (2011) ‘Put the Fun Between your legs: Or on not pretending to perform politics’: www.labofii.net/experiments/funbetweenyourlegs/.
- ^ See documentation on the Victoria & Albert Museum blog: www.vam.ac.uk/blog/disobedient-objects/the-bike-bloc-sound-swarm.
- ^ Patrick Jones & Meg Ulman, The Art of FreeTravel, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2015. See also theartistasfamily.blogspot.com.au/.
Laura Fisher is a post-doctoral research fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney. In October 2015 she co-curated Bespoke City with Sabrina Sokalik at UNSW Art & Design, a one night
exhibition featuring over 20 practitioners celebrating the bicycle through interactive installations, sculpture, video, design innovation, fashion and craft. This event was part of Veloscape, an ongoing art–research project exploring the emotional and sensory dimensions of cycling in Sydney. | www.veloscape.org