A Show about Bikers
The motorcycle rider is a paradoxical figure. He’s reputed to be a lone wolf, but he’s also a member of a tightly knit community, almost a congregation. You’re a biker. Are all the artists in this show?
Only some. But they all have their own “vision” of the motorcycle and can use a variety of artistic media to speak to the sensations a motorcycle produces, the attitudes, a rider’s relationship to his bike and to others, gender issues, violence and pure and ideal beauty. Or design and mechanics, like Alain Bublex. In this sense, each artwork conveys a sense of solitude, even if they all come together around the idea that a motorcycle is not just a machine or means of transport, but a vector of a way of being in the world that is intense, unique and largely alternative.
Isn’t biker art mostly landscape art?
For some artists that’s the case, in the tradition of the two Roberts, Sexé and Pirsig, great bikers on the long haul toward the Eternal. While riding down the highway between Tijuana and Mexico City, Gonzalo Lebrija contemplates the landscape reflected in the chrome flanks of the gas tank on his BMW R75/5. The resulting photos are the memory of something seen, something felt, a simultaneously solid and floating inscription in the surroundings and the moment. A motorcycle broadens our horizons, but never gratuitously. Through it the landscape constructs being. It is the occasion for an inevitable soul-searching produced by the impossibility, as we ride, of communicating with anyone but ourselves. Ali Kazma, Olivier Mosset and Jean-Baptiste Sauvage consider their runs as moments of spiritual self-development, more deeply rooting their body in their heart of hearts, right to the limits of consciousness. Motorcycles are the only vehicle that make it possible to travel quickly while staying in contact with the elements, in a kind of paradoxical collision with them, a kind of testing, simultaneously involving resistance, suffering and pleasure. Heat and cold, the rain, wind resistance, being burned by the sun—this immersion in the world implies a Weltanschauung. It thickens and densifies sensation and vitalism.
LUST FOR LIFE
“We can climb so high I never wanna to die,” sang Steppenwolf in Born to be Wild. But while biking is a celebration of life and freedom, it’s also associated with death, isn’t it? And sometimes with mysticism.
Every biker is acquainted with death, the death of friends and loved ones and their own brush with death when they’ve had a wipeout, a fall. They neither mock death nor revere it. It’s just there. A motorcycle can’t stand still and upright on its own two wheels, and if it’s a hog, it can take you up to 300 kilometers an hour in a heartbeat. When you ride a bike, you’re signing a risk waiver that makes staying alive both harder and more desirable. Bikers love the road because it heightens the love for life. In his wonderful paintings Charles Moody powerfully exults in this “bike joy” produced by the constant sense of danger. That kind of euphoria can lead to accidents. That’s what a biker has to use all his dexterity and acrobatic skill to avoid. And yes, sometimes there is mysticism. In one of his videos Clayton Burkhart portrays himself as an Orpheus on a Ducati 999 “Terblanche” moving through the New York night like a ghost. Shaun Gladwell, wearing a helmet and black leathers, stops his Yamaha R1 along the Australian highways to pick up kangaroo roadkill, taking them in his arms as if to console them. An angel of forgiveness.
Brigitte Bardot, mounted on her Harley Davidson, “feels desire rising through her thighs,” to quote Serge Gainsbourg. Motorcycles have a sexual dimension, and a lot of relationships are born on one.
To the point of caricature, all too often. Even outside the field of popular culture, like in the work of André Pieyre de Mandiargues, author of the novel La Motocyclette (1963), that exalts the romantic model of the motorcycle as the red and black charger of the apocalypse, of love and death. Riding a motorcycle is no more sexual than riding a horse, kickboxing or fencing. It’s physical. The sexual connotation in this case comes from cheap fantasy about what it means to mount, men who “have what it takes” between their legs. Not many artists fall into this. If they engage in a “loving relationship” with a bike, they do it like Myriam Mechita, who decorates it with pearls, turning it into a jewel, an aspiration to the sublime, or Tia-Calli Borlase, who dresses up bikes Bellmer-style with cloth and leather like a stylist dresses a model. Or like Janet Biggs, who compares the practice of pure speed with prayer and religious chanting. Love, in this sense, is absolute and ideal rather than carnal.
Neil Young, in Long May You Run, talks about the hybridization of men and machines, a “chrome heart shining in the sun.” Are bikers modern-day centaurs?
No, that’s an old chestnut. The centaur theme is a cliché in biker representation. It’s true that riding a motorcycle can feel like the fusion of man and machine, but that doesn’t mean that the two form an organic whole. For the rider, the cycle is an other, an alter, even if it is adored, served and tricked out like a goddess— an object of power. Being able to ride a motorcycle implies the power of the rider over the power of the machine. The constant obligation to tame the cycle and master its movement defines two opposing states of reality. You can get this idea in some of Gérard Rancinan’s portrait photos. He represents motorcycle racers as gladiators or Renaissance princes, intoxicated by domination.
This show also has some funny moments, especially when it comes to custom rides.
Kevin Laisné shows us a chopper that seems to have been inspired by a home training bike. Moo Chew Wong’s pain- tings give us sometimes hyperbolic variations on the “Bikes and Babes” theme. Florent Lamouroux made a molding of his body in the biker position like the Lego figure he played with as a child. There’s no sacralization here. Rather, the motorcycle is taken as a malleable object, one that can be made into the object of all sorts of fascinations, whether reasonable or not. Leaning more towards the caprice than the norm. Michaela Spiegel, who exposes the (real) machismo in the biker world, does so with caustic humor in her satires of biker culture and today’s cults of the Harley-Davidson and “the pack” that are relics of a bygone time, the days of Hollister’s rebels without a cause, of Hell’s Angels and the other one-percenters of the Wild Bunch. The postmodern Leather Boys are not anti-social freedom fighters but much more likely just very frustrated.
There is certain sound and fury in this show. Will the walls of the Lyon modern art center tremble?
I commissioned Andrea Cera, a young composer who worked at the Ircam, to write something for the occasion, and the result is When They Sing, an opera composed for Motopoétique, in which a human voice does its best to imitate the sounds of motorcycles. He tries to become a motorcycle through his breathing, his voice, in a disturbing glimpse of a possible motorized future. This is undoubtedly the height of love and devotion.
Translation, L-S Torgoff
Paul Ardenne roule en 1000 Laverda. 1980