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The Bicycle as Art

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

I think that most of us, when we think about it, find our bikes – maybe even all bikes – to be beautiful. There is something aesthetically very pleasing about the relationship between the straight lines of the frame, the circular wheels and the projecting curve of the handlebars.

That relationship is based on function, of course, but architects have long shown that beauty can come out of function. The renowned American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “Form follows function,” which he drew from the writings of the Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who declared that a structure must be solid, useful and beautiful. Those three adjectives perfectly describe the modern bicycle.

No wonder, then, that the bike has increasingly become a medium for artists, beginning in the early 20th century, when it was a symbol of technological and social progress. Today, with the bicycle more present in culture than ever before, it is used by artists in a variety of ways, including as an object of beauty.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses in front of his sculpture “Forever” at the base of the the “Gherkin” tower in the City of London, during a photocall to celebrate the completion of his installation, as part of the Sculpture in the City outdoor art exhibition. The structure was nearly 10 metres tall and 16 metres wide and consisted of 1,254 bicycle frames. © Profimedia, AFP

The contemporary Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has exhibited his sculptures and installations at museums around the world, including at Prague’s National Gallery, has often used the bicycle in his work. In addition to admiring its formal beauty, Ai Weiwei appears to use his bicycle installations to express how authoritarian political systems produce conformist individuals in a similar way to the mass production of bikes. Check out his work here and here.

On a more modest scale, in 2007 the artists Mark Grieve and Ilona Specter recycled (pun intended) bikes from rubbish dumps and recycling centres to create a 30-foot-high archway for the annual Burning Man festival held every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The work was functional and formally interesting, and it attempted to express something about the problem of all the trash that is plaguing our planet and one way to deal with it – yes, re-cycling.

The Bicycle Arch at Burning Man Festival. © Artists Without Borders Facebook

Saatchi Art offers for sale over 1,000 works by emerging artists from around the world in which the bicycle is the primary subject, such as Taliah Lempert’s oil painting “Dave’s Eisentraut on Pink”, which you can purchase for $3,410.

In fact, Ms. Lempert is a bicycle artist exclusively, and her many and very diverse portraits of our favourite two-wheeler can be found at https://www.bicyclepaintings.com/, all of them for sale.

One of the most effective public works of art using bikes was created for the British town of Woking for the road race of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, which passed through the municipality. For that project, the artist Sara Holmes and 5,000 schoolchildren created a peloton of 50 “willow cyclists” along the route of the race.

Finally, bicycle parts have also been used creatively by a number of artists, none more ingeniously than the South Korean “chain sculptor” Seo Young-Deok, who uses bicycle chains to create large, visually stunning works, such as “The Thinker”.

Also, the perfectly named company Bike Furniture Design uses bicycle (and motorcycle) parts to create astonishingly inventive furniture, so that even when you’re indoors and out of the saddle, you’ll still be “on the bike.”