The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

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Important Update

October 4, 2009 to January 3, 2010 |

Bike Rides: The Exhibition

Bike Rides explores the increasing relevance of bicycles in contemporary art and culture. As worldwide trends point to bike riding as a serious and sustainable means of transportation that is currently reshaping cities, the public’s fascination with bicycles is growing. Avid bike riders, amateur bike aficionados, recreational bikers, artists, cutting-edge designers, and the community at large are all reconsidering bicycles through their personal point of view: their own ideal bike. Bike Rides is a multidisciplinary exhibition that features customized bikes— bikes that have been re-appropriated by artists, enthusiasts, and designers to represent different identities and serve new and distinct functions. Bike Rides explores the increasing relevance of bicycles in contemporary art and culture worldwide, while focusing on this particular moment in the United States through current bike designs and artists’ takes on bike racks.

Bicycles are the culmination of the long quest for a self-moving, human-powered vehicle that originated with the “carriage without horses” envisioned by Jacques Ozanam in 1696.[1] The search continued in the Victorian era, and by the late 1800s the “mechanical horse” materialized with the basic characteristics of the contemporary bicycle: low-mount profile, wheels of equal size, rear-wheel powered by a chain, and inflatable rubber tires.[2] This meant any able-bodied person was free to travel farther and at will. The 1896 boom in bicycle production triggered social and technological revolutions. More than one hundred years later, we may very well be facing a similar boom. Today, bicycles represent different values in different societies and cultures, yet in all their modes they are increasingly gaining relevance.

In countries like China and India, bicycles play a prominent role in the informal economy. In China, bicycles have taken on the importance of an intimate partner in the daily lives of tens of thousands of local people. In the country that proclaims itself a “kingdom of bicycles,” the number of bicyclists was once reported to be as high as 500 million,[3] and many of them acted as mobile street vendors. Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation, Illusion of Childhood, presents a couple of suspended bicycles that the artist purchased from two inflatable-toy vendors in his hometown of Quanzhou, along with a light box displaying photo documentation of the transaction. The installation is a poetic rumination on the artist’s fleeting childhood fantasies and memories. Indeed, the burst of vibrant colors and swaying of the balloons and other inflatable toys trigger flashes of freedom, joy, and desire. Their beauty is but a mirage, and such tantalizing merchandise stands in clear contrast to the earthy, run-down bicycles of the improvising vendors. In this artwork, the innocence of youth and the spoils of time give way to illusions of time and latitude over countless years.

Similarly, Indian artist Subodh Gupta pays tribute to the dynamics of a working class that relies on bicycle delivery of fresh cows’ milk to urban sites. Three Cows depicts three highly detailed cast-in-bronze bicycles and galvanized metal milk containers. These seemingly mundane objects, which are generally overlooked, have been glorified by the artist in these gleaming bronze versions. The sculpture freezes and literally reflects upon a practice—bicycle delivery—which in current global cultural trends may be either lost or starting to regain popularity.

Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican artist Miguel Luciano pays homage to the spontaneity and creativity of itinerant street vendors in Latin America. His art project titled Pimp My Piragua reconsiders the popular pedal business of shaved ice (Piraguas). For the artist, the bicycle is an enabling device that in its simplicity (bike, ice, syrups) represents the opportunity and optimism shared by entrepreneurial Latinos. However, for Luciano the Piragua vendor also evokes a certain nostalgia and memories of his homeland. In his own fantasy ride, Luciano transforms the traditional pushcart into a flashy and updated customized tricycle. His “pimped out” Piragua cart includes hi-fi sound and video systems from which he plays salsa or hip-hop, depending on the cravings of his art spectator customers.

In developing countries, low-income earners still depend heavily on bicycles as an affordable everyday means of transportation. In that context, countries such as China, India, and Brazil have become prominent bicycle manufacturers.[4] Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes addresses the commuter’s experience in his project titled aerialbikeway. The series includes drawings of elevated bicycle paths superimposed onto urban structures, as well as the bicycles in this exhibition, which fuse utility and local aesthetics. For Lopes, the bikes function as “social sculptures,” through which people can also reconsider bike transportation as a source of enjoyment. The artist finds cycling achieves a balance between the technology of the body and that of movement, between a means of transportation and an alternative form of energy, and ultimately between effort and pleasure.[5]

In the United States, serious consideration is being given to bike riding as a cheap way to commute, good exercise, and, most recently, as important sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation. The U.S. finds itself at a crucial point where the basic conditions for the massive use of bicycles for everyday commuting are being met. The first condition is the increase in implementation of improvements to urban and suburban cycling facilities; the second, the price of gasoline keeps rising or is unstable, thus there is an urgency to find oil-free transportation alternatives; and the third, U.S. bicycle design has reached an optimum level of quality and functionality at affordable prices.

In the latter context, artist, designer, and devoted cyclist Rob Vandermark’s Viridian Bike, a commuter bike from his company Seven Cycles, summarizes several of the issues at hand. Having majored in sculpture in college, he left to pursue his two combined passions—cycling and sculpture. Vandermark initiated his career at Merlin Metalworks, a high-end bicycle frame builder and one of the first to work with titanium. Vandermark’s own durable titanium bicycles, like this Viridian Bike, are completely customized to the specific body measurements and riding habits of each commuter, affording maximum efficiency and performance. For this bike, Vandermark’s efforts have also gone into reducing the carbon footprint in the production and distribution—recycling, and, for example, using green materials such as cork for the handle grips. Curiously, the effort to reduce the use of energy during manufacturing has made it necessary in some instances to rely on more time-consuming and labor-intensive handwork, rather than high-end technology.

Similarly, other designers and artists in the U.S. are reconsidering the commuter bike and its experience. The American design firm Cannondale, popular in the 1980s for their “aluminum for the masses,”[6] is currently launching a new all-carbon-fiber commuter bicycle, the Stealth, and in 2007 presented the ON bike, a concept bicycle for “clean urban mobility.” The musician and bike advocate David Byrne’s Helmet-Cam video explores the advantages and disadvantages of bike commuting in Manhattan. His video shows the nerve-wracking experience of guarding against pedestrians and hire cars, yet also emphasizes the “jolt of energy” the urban journey provides.

As previously mentioned, the recent increased interest in and use of bicycles in the United States is also tied to the growing awareness of the lack of sustainability of our petroleum-based lifestyle. The work Greenhouse-a-Go-Grow, which is a co-production of the artists’ collectives K.I.D.S. (the Kindness and Imagination Development Society) and Secret School, utilizes the bike as literally a vehicle for both sustainable agriculture and cycle advocacy. The yearlong collaboration between the two groups focuses on urban gardens, and particularly an experimental rooftop garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Greenhouse-a-Go-Grow tricycle[7] has been used as both a seed starter and a recruiting tool for the project, combining art and social activism in an engaging (and mobile) way. Parked on the street, it lists artists’ phone numbers, encouraging local citizens to get involved in the group’s programs, including seed-sharing and urban garden tours. During the run of the exhibition at The Aldrich, the staff and general public that wish to do so will be maintaining a garden in the Greenhouse-a-Go-Grow, focusing on edible plants.

Also concerned with sustainability and the incorporation of social issues in the production of their bicycles are the Brooklyn-based Bamboo Bike Studio. They have taken the ethics and practicality of sustainability to a new level by making, and more importantly helping others to make, bike frames out of bamboo. Started in 2009 by Justin Aguinaldo, a former North American cycle-messenger champion; Sean Murray, a former botany teacher at an alternative high school in Manhattan; and Marty Odlin, assistant director of the Center for Sustainable Engineering at Columbia University; the Studio runs weekend workshops where a participant walks in on Saturday morning and rides away Sunday afternoon, with a fully functional, sturdy, single-speed bike with the main frame components made out of bamboo harvested in New Jersey. The Studio’s guiding philosophy, which is frequently eclipsed by the unique material used, is that the frame is actually made by the rider, and that practically anyone (even those with zero mechanical ability) can successfully make a bamboo frame. The frames made at the workshops are assembled with connections made from resin and carbon fiber, but the bikes that the Studio hopes to start mass-producing in Africa will be held together with locally sourced linen fiber, to further remove the bikes from the industrial supply chain.

While some artists and designers in this exhibition focus on the environment and sustainability, there is one constant for all the designers: they all explore advances in frame technology and focus on customization. Customization and a specific material performance—of materials such as titanium, carbon fiber, steel, and bamboo—are two major characteristics of the bicycles of the future.

Fabricator of the Viridian Bike, Massachusetts-based Seven Cycles is the largest custom bike manufacturer in the world and is recognized internationally in the cycling industry as one of the most innovative designers in titanium frames. Their bicycles use custom frame geometry and rider-specific tube diameters and wall thickness in order to complement the rider's weight, riding style, intended use, age, and riding terrain. The use of titanium in bicycles such as the 2010 Axion SL helps reduce unwanted vibration, yet provides an underlying sensory connection to the environment while riding. Titanium is an ultra-light, extremely strong, high fatigue-endurance and corrosion-proof metal alloy that is used in the aerospace industry. Many Seven Cycles bicycles have been specifically designed for world-class athletes, including Olympians, national champions, and Tour de France winners. And Seven Cycles president Rob Vandermark has also designed the first performance wheelchair that incorporates titanium as an integral design element.

Bob Parlee is also from the Boston area. The designer spent some 22 years building traditional wooden boats and high-tech composite racing boats—for both power and sail. He then founded PARLEE Cycles, renowned for their custom carbon-fiber road and aerodynamic bicycles. Parlee calls his bikes “functional works of art” because they integrate the science of aerospace materials and design with artisanal building techniques. He has been able to take advantage of the directional strength of carbon fiber to create high-performance bikes that optimize power transfer from the rider—how much carbon fiber flexes can be adjusted in the lay-up of the tubes and lugs—and in conjunction with its vibration-damping characteristics, these bikes reduce rider fatigue. A carbon-fiber frame is the lightest of them all and Parlee is known for making some of the lightest frames—sub 2 lbs. These meticulously crafted bicycles are seen on racing circuits and used by both professional riders and demanding recreational riders.

The most critical part of the bicycle is the frame, as it defines the cycle’s intended use, the size (and temperament) of the rider, as well as the bike’s primary aesthetic. The spectrum of frame-making extends from the inexpensive, mass-produced commercial bike world, through the small, highly specialized company, to the lone craftsman. Richard Sachs is the epitome of the craftsman frame builder. He learned the traditional technique of steel frame design and fabrication working as an apprentice in the 1970s at England’s venerable Witcomb Cycles. On returning to the United States, he combined his career as a competitive racer with his love of frame-making to begin Richard Sachs Cycles, an enterprise in Chester, Connecticut, of which he is the sole employee. Taking on average four to five days to make an individual frame, Sachs strives towards the elusive goal of perfection, refining all the details on his beautifully hand-brazed steel frames.[8] Parallel to the “slow food” movement, Sachs’s ethic is based in the growing interest in handcrafted products, and the idea of knowing the face behind what one consumes. “I don’t know if they want steel, or if they want me,”[9] Sachs has commented on the motivation to get on the waiting list for one of his bikes. His contribution to this exhibition is his 2007 “-sawa” Pista Series Track Bike (Red), a cycle that was made for the rarified world of track racing. The track bicycle is all about speed: no brakes, direct chain drive, nothing extraneous to slow down the athletes who routinely cruise on the velodrome track at speeds approaching 40 mph.

Most of the technological improvements are implemented in high-end racing bicycles, such as those of seven-time Tour de France-winner Lance Armstrong. The Tour, consisting of twenty-one separate stages, covers a distance of 2,175 miles, including different road profiles such as flat and mountain, as well as individual time-trial stages. Different specialized bicycles are used in the different stages. The bicycles on view at The Aldrich are a road bike and a time-trial bike featuring a solid back wheel, which is more aerodynamic at speed than a spoked wheel.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from bicycle customization based on performance, we find customization based on understanding the bicycle as an extension of the personality, a matter of individual expression represented by the bicycles from the Mexican Pride and the Puerto Rico Schwinn Club troupes.

The Queens-based collective Mexican Pride, which includes Vicente Olivares, Francisco Javier Ceballos, and Rogelio and Braulio Martinez, design their bikes to pay homage to the low-rider movement of the West Coast. The group fabricates metal chrome frames and chrome details, such as “long horn” handle bars, mirror posts, bumpers, chain stays, and even kickstands. They include customized upholstery on the seat and spare wheel, and hand-paint portraits of their immediate family on the frames with car-metal laminate. They often include an image of their guardian, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their bikes have the look of rebel choppers, with features that imitate motorcycles, such as the low-riding body posture, rear-exhaust pipes, and radio antennas—all glamorized in their unique baroque aesthetic.

The Puerto Rico Schwinn Club, based in Brooklyn, customize their bicycles as a testament to their homeland. One of the founders recalls how his fascination with Schwinn bikes originated during childhood, when his father prohibited him from touching his bike because it was not an entertainment device, but a serious vehicle used for work. Some fifty years later, the Club members, including founder Martha Clavijo and members “El Gallo” and Orlando Rivera, are dedicated to restoring and tricking-out their vintage Schwinns with flags, sound systems, repurposed car horns, stickers, lights, and more flags. These humorously fetishized Schwinns speak of a profound melancholia for homeland, as well as emotional childhood remembrances. Their appeal is evident in the vast audiences that gather to vigorously discuss the ornaments and accessories with the Club members when they take the bikes out for rides throughout the city.

Other artists in this exhibition also explore the bicycle’s role as a symbol for childhood memory. Jonathan Brand’s Fallen is a fiberboard replica of the BMX bike that the artist had as a youth. The story behind this sculpture, however, is much more complicated than meets the eye. In 1986 Brand desired a Redline RL20, one of the first production BMX[10] bikes ever made. His ideal was out of reach, however, and he had to settle for a cheap K-Mart knockoff. In 2007 the artist attempted to recreate something he could never have again: the K-Mart BMX of his childhood. Through an act of retro engineering, he acquired an old Redline and painstakingly transformed it into his cherished BMX of memory. This replica did not go far enough, however, and Brand then made a three-dimensional pantograph, a device that allowed him to mechanically carve an exact duplicate of the replica BMX out of fiberboard. This process of making a copy from a copy of something that was originally a copy is an apt metaphor for the nostalgia for youth: one can try to replicate the past, but the harder one tries, the further it seems to recede.

Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner literally “takes” the bicycle back from the high art world and returns it to the street in his video I’d give it to you if I could but I borrowed it. Influenced by the early comedy films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, as well as work from the 1960s and 1970s by artists such as Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, Ben-Ner’s recent video is exclusively centered on himself and his relationship with his family, especially his children, whom he employed in making I’d give it back to you. Bicycle parts have been utilized by a range of Modernist artists in the twentieth century, and Ben-Ner’s video pictures him and his two children visiting a gallery in an art museum where works by Picasso, Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Jean Tingley are on view. While the museum guard sleeps around the corner, Ben-Ner and his children disassemble the four iconic works, reclaiming the bike parts they contain to make a functional cycle that they ride out into an adjacent park. The work begs the question: who would want to be in an art museum when you could be out riding in the sunshine?

Though Bike Rides is composed mainly of hardware, several works emphasize the human-powered aspect of cycling. Bari Kumar’s video Army of Forgotten Souls pictures a walla, the driver of a rickshaw, riding on the street on which the artist was born in Nellore, India. In Kumar’s video the driver’s face is never pictured, only the active parts of his body working to propel the rickshaw forward. The artist has stated, “All you see of these rickshaw wallas is a faceless machine that is cloaked in a thin veneer of human skin. Like watching the pistons of heavy machinery moving in constant rhythm, they are quite mesmerizing to me.”[11] The video’s hypnotic soundtrack, by the techno band Transglobal Underground, provides not only the title of the piece, but also acts to remind us that the vast majority of physical labor done in the world is still powered by human muscle.

In recent years “street trials,” an extreme and incredibly physical form of riding related to BMX, has quickly evolved. Performed on tough, seatless bikes in urban environments, the street-trial rider creatively uses any and all features that are normally out of bounds for wheeled vehicles, frequently performing delicate hopping and jumping maneuvers in which the bicycle and rider are almost standing still. Indeed, the athleticism of street trials is often compared to ballet, due to the control and balance that is in evidence. Scottish street-trial rider Danny McAskill has become widely known (mainly through YouTube and Vimeo) for riding skills that are frequently described as “sick” (an honorable term in the BMX community). Street-trial riders are clearly a breed apart, frequently flouting the law by riding on rooftops and jumping off highway overpasses, often performing their skills at off-hours when the streets are empty of pedestrians (and police). The MacAskill video included in this exhibition was made in Edinburgh by filmmaker and fellow street-trials rider David Sowerby; it is accompanied by a chiming guitar soundtrack of the song The Funeral by the American indie rock group Band of Horses.

As bicycles become more common modes of transportation, the architecture to park and protect them—the bike rack—has become increasingly ubiquitous, particularly in urban areas. However the recent revolution in bicycle design has not been reflected in a proliferation of bike racks that combine useful function with high aesthetics. Stripped down to its core, the bike rack provides two basic functions: a support structure that keeps bikes upright in a spatially efficient manner, and a sold armature for securing bikes from theft. Included in this exhibition are three radically different takes on rack design, all of which have been installed outside the Museum for cyclists to use during the duration of the exhibition.

Designer and fabricator Peter Kirkiles has teamed up with Studio Tractor Architecture to produce the Cotter Pin Bike Rack. Simply fabricated out of bent and folded 1/4 x 2 inch steel bar stock,[12] its form was inspired by the common cotter pin. Starkly modernist in design, its angular shape is a perfect complement to the rigid geometry of a bicycle’s frame. The prototype Cotter Pin racks have been painted “Aldrich Red” to acknowledge their premiere in this exhibition.

Artist and fabricator David Gelfman has made the steel Bike Crab, a radial rack that is based on the form of the common blue crab. Frustrated by racks that are lifeless when not attended by parked bicycles, Gelfman’s Bike Crab animates space, working as an engaging and entertaining sculpture with or without any bicycles. The steel “shell” top provides a flat, table-like surface where cyclists can place their personal items while securing their bikes to the rack, and the rack’s heavy steel-plate construction precludes theft.

Urban cyclists, from everyday commuters to bike messengers, face a host of difficult challenges that set them apart from the recreational cyclist. Looming large in the psyche of the urban cyclist is bike theft, a too-common occurrence that is almost impossible to foil once the would-be thief has set his sights. Hard-core urban cyclists eschew fancy, expensive bikes for more stripped-down workhorses, reflecting the hazardous and punishing environment of potholes, traffic, and theft. Tom Sachs has provided an urban reality check in genteel Fairfield County with his steel bike rack. Made completely out of “repurposed” New York city street signposts, it is bolted to the pavement with a chain worthy of the anchor on the Titanic. Attached across its top surface is a hand-made sign (fabricated out of “found” wood from a New York City Police barrier) that states “These Bikes are Being Watched, You are Being Watched.”

Last, but not least, artist Carolina Pedraza has contributed to the exhibition a hand-drawn mural presenting bicycle advocacy data such as the fact that nearly 40% of trips taken in the U.S. are two miles or less—the perfect length for a bike ride. Running our errands, better yet, biking these short distances, would keep us fit and reduce road congestion, pollution, and global warming.[13]

Perhaps the most comprehensive approach to cycling is suggested by author David V. Herlihy in his bicycle history book. He mentions that cycling makes a person more self-reliant and teaches temperance and control. Cyclists even acquire a greater love of nature and are more attached to their native land. The sport, he summarizes, teaches caution, gives presence of mind in emergencies, and may reveal hidden mechanical or inventive genius. In short, cyclists become more aware, generous, and social.[14] We believe the bicycle boom we are currently experiencing recognizes all of these perceptions, while addressing transportation and sustainability.

Richard Klein, director of exhibitions, and Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, curator

[1] David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press: New Haven and London), p. 15.

[2] Herlihy, p. 6.

[3], June 15, 2006.

[4] Herlihy, p. 11.

[5] Juliana Moreira da Silva, Parangolé: Jarbas Lopes’s Nomad Inner City, New York, 2009.

[6] Herlihy, p. 368.

[7] The Greenhouse-a-Go-Grow and Miguel Luciano’s Pimp My Piragua are both built on the chassis of Worksman tricycles. Worksman is the United States’s oldest continuously owned cycle company, having been in operation since 1898. Builders of the original Good Humor ice cream tricycles, their business has expanded to include industrial, recreational, and even military cycles (their tricycles are currently being utilized by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan). Worksman’s original credo was “Our goal is to bring a more efficient, reliable, and healthful transportation to modern industry.” The times have clearly caught up with the company, with Worksman Cycles thriving in an era when much American industry is on the decline.

[8] Sachs utilizes steel tubes that are joined together by “lugs,” steel fittings that are intricately shaped by hand. The tubes fit into the lugs and are held in place by steel pins during the brazing process. Brazing is a high-temperature version of soldering that uses copper or silver alloys. Unlike MIG or TIG welded steel frames, a lugged and brazed frame can be more easily repaired. The vast majority of bicycles currently made use a steel frame, and although steel is heavier than titanium, aluminum, or carbon fiber, its popularity is based on its low cost, crash worthiness/general durability, and flexibility, offering a quality that riders often describe as” lively.”

[9] Quoted from Imperfection is Perfection: Richard Sachs Bicycle Maker, a film by Desmond Horsfield Productions, Inc. (2008).

[10] BMX (Bicycle Motocross) originated in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Children and teenagers with the desire but not the means to participate in the burgeoning sport of dirt motorcycle racing began customizing bikes such as Schwinn Sting Rays for off-the-road use. Subsequently, BMX riders started competing with skateboarders in riding on manmade objects such as stairs and handrails. The genre became known as “freestyling” and soon expanded to jumping and air tricks performed on the half pipe ramps of skate parks.

[11] From email correspondence with the artist on August 18, 2009.

[12] A production version of the rack is available in unpainted, brushed stainless steel.

[13] Bikes Belong Coalition, Bicycling/Moving America Forward, 2008 edition, p. 7.

[14] Herlihy, p. 344.

Lance Armstrong; Bamboo Bike Studio (Justin Aguinaldo, Sean Murray, and Marty Odin); Guy Ben-Ner; Jonathan Brand; David Byrne; Cai Guo-Qiang; Cannondale Bicycle Corporation; David Gelfman; Subodh Gupta; Bari Kumar; Jarbas Lopes; Miguel Luciano; Mexican Pride (Francisco Javier Ceballos, Rogelio and Braulio Martinez, and Vicente Olivares); PARLEE Cycles; Carolina Pedraza; Puerto Rico Schwinn Club (Martha Clavijo, “El Gallo,” and Orlando Rivera); Richard Sachs; Tom Sachs; Secret School and the K.I.D.S. (Colin McMullan [aka EMCEE C.M.] and Huong Ngo); Seven Cycles; David Sowerby and Danny MacAskill; Studio Tractor (Peter Kirkiles design + fabrication and Studio Tractor Architecture); and Rob Vandermark.