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Issue 42 September-October 1998 RSS

The Art of the Motorcycle

Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

There aren’t too many good reasons to allow director Thomas Krens, installation-designer Frank Gehry and sponsors BMW and Banana Republic - the whole gang - get away with calling motorcycles art. Sex, freedom, multivalent metaphor - these all capture what the motorcycle is about, what it signifies for the century’s increasingly hyper-analytical consciousness. Tagging as art the dozens of spindly prototypes, underslung cruising hogs and crotch rockets parked around the Guggenheim spiral just complicates unnecessarily the meaning of a machine that everyone already gets.

Which is not to say that the exhibition didn’t amass a collection of absolutely kick-ass bikes. Diverging from the trade-show template, the Guggenheim evacuated all superfluous gear from the installation. In place of the fetishised accoutrements one might have expected, they provided only a few vitrines of two-dimensional material (manufacturers’ catalogue pages, issues of The Enthusiast - apparently Harley-Davidson’s house organ - from the 50s). What’s left is bikes galore, from the Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede of 1868 - the aboriginal motorcycle, a quaint Victorian big-wheel bike with a motor strapped on - to a chamberful of 90s examples, including Philippe Starck’s smoothly self-contained Aprilia Moto 6.5, an orange, matt-aluminium-and-chrome perpetual curve with fat wheels. In between, arranged chronologically, are the usual suspects: Harley’s 1957 ‘Shovelhead’ Sportster XL; a recreation of Peter Fonda’s over-chromed, patriotic, fantasy chopper from Easy Rider; the glorious 1969 BSA Rocket; the 1984 Kawasaki Ninja, looking like it popped straight out of Akira, a testosterone cartoon of purified velocity; some ill-fated Harley attempts to keep the brand afloat in the 70s (the ‘Japanese’ Harley, the ‘Italian’ Harley); and the dreamcycle of the collective unconscious: Indian’s 1948 Chief, in bright red.

Trotting up the Guggenheim spiral, lined with Gehry’s sheets of mirrored steel, fun-housing the affair, a narrative of nationalism inevitably emerged. The French were in the motorcycle game from the beginning, but as the decades passed, their contributions were consigned to the superannuated realms of laudable design and Modernist whimsy, not always fairly. The Gnôme et Rhône M1 from 1934 was framed from pressed steel years before competitors began to consider the motorcycle not a contraption that surrounded a plucky cylinder or two with rickety struts, but an enclosed mass, a cluster of seductive forms hunkered down for harsh business. The M1 was slick, black and formidably cool in a way that the French themselves just aren’t anymore.

As early as 1924, the Italians were already wedging themselves into a niche, establishing a set of clichés that would persist in spite of their frequent dominance of the racing scene. The Moto Guzzi CV, according to the accompanying text, ‘embodies the effortlessly stylish aesthetics so characteristic of Italian motorcycle and product design’. Meanwhile, Brough Superior - one of those stalwart, doomed British makers - ‘assembled large, capable motorcycles for the relatively affluent’. The company’s SS100 carried Lawrence of Arabia to his death in 1935. In the United States, Harley and Indian duked it out to capture the hearts of road warriors less interested in affluence than in tooling along on a sled that noisily pledged allegiance to low-tech, pre-rockstar rebellion. The Germans stressed engineering. Everyone got blindsided by the Japanese and their twee little popularity-contest scooters, like the ‘definitive cheap and cheerful’ Honda 50, or the 1962 CR110, which looks as if it could have been dumped from the box fully assembled.

Ultimately, the show was less about the unpretentious joys of vernacular sculpture than the way in which sub-culture eventually morphs into super-culture, master narrative rising from lowly premise. Triumph’s 1967 T 120 Bonneville ‘came to summarise “Brit-iron” for a generation of American motorcyclists’ we are told. The blocks of wall text that subdivide the exhibition were unconsciously hilarious in their pithy effort to join machine to history: ‘Freedom and Postwar Mobility’ 1946-1958, for instance, gave a list that included Alger Hiss, ‘American Bandstand’ and the microchip. ‘Getting Away from it All’ 1969-1978 mixed the Chicago 7and Saccharine. The Ducati M900 ‘Monster’, a 90s sport bike whose seat cantilevers precariously out over its massive back wheel, draws inspiration from the ‘suburban grunge-biking rage of the late 1980s’. Whatever. Despite this kind of groping, the show was rife with simple, giddy pleasures: the 1938 Triumph Speed Twin, the 1958 Twenty-One, the 1962 Ducati Elite - memorable bikes. All that was missing was the potential din. Perched on their pedestals, every one of the suckers begged to be cranked up.

Matthew DeBord

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First published in
Issue 42, September-October 1998

by Matthew DeBord

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