Can a bicycle be a work of art? Marcel Duchamp (born in 1887, France), a pioneer of Modern Art, certainly saw the appeal of putting a bicycle wheel upside down on a wooden stool. ‘Bicycle Wheel’, originally created in 1913, was the first ‘ready-made’ sculpture, and for many it has, if nothing else, a certain aesthetic appeal; ‘I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace’, Duchamp professed.
So what might initially sound like a tricky question is actually quite an easy one; since and thanks to Duchamp, pretty much anything could be considered art. This is certainly a proposition that people might have strong feelings about, and others actively disagree with, but if there is one person who would agree with Duchamp, it would be Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei (born in 1957, Beijing) is not just an artist; he is an activist and a genuine defender of human rights. He is widely known for the political themes in his work and by his being labelled a ‘dissident’ by the Chinese government. The son of a poet and a writer, he spent most of his young life in the then rural village, now growing city of Shihezi, where his family was exiled due to their political beliefs. Moving to New York in 1981, where he chiefly lived until 1993, he came into contact with the years of influence Marcel Duchamp had left behind. As well as this, Ai Weiwei saw the established world of Pop Art and critique of consumerism and mass production, traces of which are still present in his artistic practice.
His works of art range from installations and performance to sculptures and even architecture, with themes that often explore human and social issues of his native China, like his touching work ‘Straight’ made of hand-straightened steel rods, born as a response to the devastation after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where due to the poorly built public schools thousands of children lost their lives. But not only: Weiwei also reinvents the old or the practical like in ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ from 1995 where the artist smashed an antique urn with the purpose of exploring the depths of the long forgotten and banned Chinese cultural heritage and its value in contemporary society.
His works, as you might have guessed, also feature bicycles all over the place. In his ‘Forever Bicycle’ series, Ai Weiwei augments the western concept of the ‘ready-made’ with his traditional Chinese heritage. The Forever bicycle, created by the Shanghai Forever Co. in 1940, worked as the main means of transportation for millions of Chinese people, revolutionising the country’s economy as a result, and has thus become a symbol for Chinese communism much like the iconic DDR Trabant car is for East Germany and the Soviet Bloc.
Since 2003, these bicycles have been both subject and object of numerous works, including the installation of over 1000 of them at Palazzo Franchetti in Venice during the 2014 Architecture Biennale. His current major retrospective the Royal Academy of Arts also features a spectacular chandelier made with bicycles and crystals created especially for the exhibition.
In the past couple of months, London, and to an extent the whole of the UK and Europe, has been going through a storm of ‘Aiweiweimania’ that has probably struck even the most artistically unaware. The Royal Academy’s exhibition, has undeniably boosted Ai Weiwei’s notoriety, with no less a contributing factor the fact that right up to the very last minute nobody knew whether the artist was going to be able to attend his own opening. For nearly three years, following an abrupt and illegal detention in 2011 where Ai spent 81 days in a tiny cell accompanied by two interrogators, Chinese authorities forbade the artist from leaving the country and confiscated his passport, accusing him, without any proof, of tax evasion.
Understandably, Ai Weiwei’s life and personal circumstances permeate his whole body of work: in more than one occasion the artist has explained how these bicycles were part of his childhood, in a town and in a time where there were no proper roads and people still had to use bikes as the main mean of transportation.
The bicycle however, is not just a work of art. For Ai Weiwei, it was also a symbol of resistance to the unfair treatment he received from the Chinese government. Back in 2013, while authorities were still withholding his passport, the artist started placing a bouquet of flowers in a bicycle’s basket chained right outside his Beijing studio every day and for 600 days, until the authorities finally returned his passport a few months ago. What seems like a poetic gesture is actually much more: a commentary on hope and censorship that places the chained bike as the opposite of the much-longed freedom.
Ai Weiwei stays true to his heritage and while his ambitious projects grow in size, whether they involve smashing Han dynasty urns, or stacking up thousands of bicycles all around the world, they all carry an intrinsic meaning, profound yet easy to read, reminding us all of the universality of the little things and allowing room for reflection, kindness and social awareness in a world that forgets and moves forward more quickly than ever before.