Bikes

Art’s Problem with the Bikes Wheel

Earlier this week I returned to Oxford, the city is a mass of students and more importantly bikes. Surrounded by cyclists, I began to reflect upon the use of bicycles within art.

Unfortunately, Duchamp did not see the need to keep his Readymades as they were mass-produced items and were not, therefore, original.

Bicycles have long been used as sculptural elements to fight against the status quo of the art institutions.

To many, a bike is a relatable form, it refers to the body and its functional use of getting us from point A to point B could be seen as a form of freedom as well as health and happiness.

What is Art?

Bikes

Marcel Duchamp is a controversial name in the world of all things art. The artists to which education and society hold precious, such as Monet, Manet and Picasso, are seen as figures who challenged artistic tradition. Yet it was Duchamp who truly threw a spanner in the works of the salons and institutions within Paris.

Duchamp was a pioneer of the Dada movement, a movement that questioned ‘what is art?’. Initially, Duchamp worked as a painter in the years preceding the Great War.

However, he found no enjoyment in the rules of painting and realised his enjoyment lay in the creation of ideas. His idea of ‘Readymades’ entered the art scene and turned the world upside down.

By selecting mass-produced objects and removing them from their function and purpose, Duchamp had created ‘Art’ in the simplest of terms.

Through his use of Readymades, Duchamp inevitably disrupted the future of art. Consequently, if you were to attend an art class, read an art book or watch a documentary on modern art, it is no surprise that the history usually begins with Duchamp’s greatest work ‘Fountain’.

Bicycle Wheel

However, Fountain’s predecessor ‘Bicycle Wheel’ was the beginning of the Readymades. In 1913 Duchamp had an idea “to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn”. (If you are interested in modern art or the history of art, I would highly recommend Duchamp’s essays for a philosophical background to early-twentieth-century art.)

Bicycle Wheel is an example of what Duchamp would call an ‘Assisted Readymade’, a sculpture created by combining more than one utilitarian item.

The work is a pleasing piece in which a bicycle wheel is built into a white wooden stool. Due to the wheel being suspended into the air, it cannot complete its intended function to move along the ground.

Moreover, the stool has been drilled into and the wheel is attached through the seat, therefore, the stool cannot perform its function as it cannot be sat upon. The composition is almost windmill-like.

Unfortunately, Duchamp did not see the need to keep his Readymades as they were mass-produced items and were not, therefore, original.

However, Duchamp’s works are often on display in the major galleries as replicas were made in the later twentieth century. A replica of Bicycle Wheel can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art.

Maurizio Cattelan

Bikes

Readymades have taken the heart of one fantastic Italian artist. Maurizio Cattelan’s work is a bit like marmite for the art lover. His works draw upon popular culture, history, and religion in an often controversial way. Cattelan often mocks everyday living through his portrayal of scenes with taxidermy animals, hyper-realistic sculptures and mass-produced items.

Cattelan attacks society at its core. He is inspired by his upbringing in Italy which was filled with economic hardship, difficulties at school and a string of menial employment. Cattelan distrusts authority and discusses the treatment of the workforce continually within his works.

In 2012, Cattelan displayed his work at the Guggenheim. His ‘All’ retrospective presented his work in the most in your face commentary of society since Duchamp.

The retrospective was a collection of every work the artist had produced since 1989. The works were strung up in the Guggenheim’s immense rotunda, in a manner almost like a baby’s mobile.

The readymades were taken as far away from their true function as possible and were surrounded by animals, a sculpture of the pope and a picture of the artist himself.

As expected, if you look close enough there is a bicycle. Its suspension in the air yet again commenting on controls over freedom.

Ai Weiwei

In 2014, Ai Weiwei made a statement in central London through his installation ‘Forever’ which towered over bystanders from the side of the Gherkin.

The installation had travelled internationally originally visiting the Brooklyn Museum and the Venice Architecture Biennale as well as many other locations since the projects beginning in 2003.

The piece was formed by hundreds of stainless steel bicycles stacked to form geometric shapes and layers. The work was installed as part of London’s Sculpture in the City programme in which every summer a sculpture is installed within the city’s central business district.

The name of the installation refers to a mass-manufacturing brand from the early 1940s based in Shanghai. Today, these bicycles are becoming rarer and rarer on the streets.

Why so controversial?

The tradition of Readymades has continued from Duchamp’s initial beginnings into the present day. The idea of removing a mass-manufactured item and making it functionless has resulted in controversy which remains to split the art world.

One of the main arguments on the point remains to be, ‘Who made it?’ In the case of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, can we say that he created it because he drilled the hole into the seat of the stool? Or does the credit belong to the manufacturer of the stool or the wheel? Many art historians refuse to celebrate Duchamp for the fact that the art in the museums are not originals, they are reproductions created because even Duchamp didn’t see his works as originals.

Do people, who visit these museums get less of experience through seeing a reproduction? It could be that Duchamp intended for the idea to be remembered not the actual artwork. It was the idea that Duchamp cared the most about, not the actual sculptures longevity. Yet his ideas have found their way into countless books as a point of argument, could this not have been the original purpose?

Moreover, both Cattelan and Weiwei didn’t change the bicycles they used, they just removed them from their purpose through suspending them. Could it be considered that these artists are just the middlemen for their installations?

In the case of Readymade art and most installation art, it is impossible to see eye to eye on the messages, purposes or in most cases artist of the works. The difference in opinion comes largely from a difference in the definition of art. Duchamp, Cattelan and Weiwei all have controversial art due to their belief that art is the idea rather than the process.

Next time someone says there is no point in an installation or if their child could have painted that picture as them if they believe art lies in the idea or the process. Like most art, there is no right or wrong answer and the most memorable art often arises from the centre of these debates.

For more bicycle wheel art look into:

John Morris’s dystopian wood and metal sculptures of the female form and Gerard Cambom’s Kinetic Ferris.

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