In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington presented the first ever North American retrospective of the illustrious Ai Weiwei, elevating the artist’s renown to even greater heights. In a conjunctive effort with Japan’s Mori museum, “According to What?” was an updated and revised exhibition based on its Japanese predecessor, and exhibited a wide range of Ai’s sculptural, photographic, video/audio, and installation pieces. The present work, Forever Bicycles (Lot 1075), constructed in 2003, was featured in this monumental show nearly ten years after its original production. Prior to this, Forever Bicycles made regular appearances in exhibitions at notable institutions, including the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Miami’s Bass Museum of Arts, and Belgium’s Caermersklooster Provincial Centre of Art and Culture. Forever Bicycles is the earliest prototype for many subsequent large-scale installations based on the same thematic concern of bicycles. The present piece is an apt distillation of the artist’s art form: a unique blend of innovative craftsmanship and provocative contemplation, indicative of Ai’s outlook in both life and in art—one that challenges and regenerates its surroundings with more than mere acquiescence.
Forever Bicycles is a sculpture created with 42 dismantled Forever brand bicycles, which have been reconstructed to create a tall, interconnected circular shape. A household name in China, the Forever Company began bicycle production in Shanghai in 1940, and grew to become the leading Chinese bicycle manufacturer. As a leading brand, Forever bicycles were a regular feature on the teeming streets in large and small cities alike. With the advancement of technology following modernisation, however, the Forever bicycles began to disappear with time, replaced by larger, more efficient automobiles. The irony of the “Forever” bicycles can thus be fully felt by its audience.
Forever Bicycles intensely captures Ai’s mode of creation. By using simplistic materials and reconstructing them into new forms, the artist allows his audience to contemplate the connections between form and content; to focus on the context behind each material, its title, its regeneration, and the repercussions of the redeveloped object. This is not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s own pioneering concepts of the “Readymade”, which sought to challenge the very definition of “art” itself. Rather, Duchamp’s “Readymades”—a name acquired from American mass-produced, manufactured items in the 1900s—ascribed meaning to unassuming, utilitarian items, giving them renewed significance. One of the first of such “Readymades” was Duchamp’s Roue de Bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), originally created in 1913 and recreated in 1951. Roue de Bicyclette consisted of a bicycle fork and an upside-down wheel mounted onto a wooden stool. The piece challenged the original function of a bicycle as a mere mode of transport, thrusting it into the realms of art.
Ai Weiwei’s own encounter with the likes of Duchamp was precipitated by his move to the United States in 1981, a time which likewise acquainted the young artist with names such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. In these artists Ai found “a certain emotional detachment or indifference”, an emotion that he translated into his own works. One can find this “indifference” resonated in Forever Bicycle—not that the artist is apathetic towards his subject matter; contrarily, this “indifference” is the starting point of the piece. The bicycles have been stripped of their original function, leaving behind a blank slate onto which meaning can be engraved.
The present Forever Bicycle is an important prototype for the concept of the installation. Though the present piece is constructed with 42 bicycles, Ai experimented with various numbers and shapes, ranging from 4 bikes in a square formation in 2006, to more than 3,000 arranged in a dense configuration in recent years as he elaborated on his original design. The Forever Bicycle range also extended in terms of its exhibition locales, with two most recent shows being in an outdoor space in Toronto featuring 3,144 bikes in 2013, as well as a 1,179 bike installation at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. Although the Forever Bicycle works would get larger in size, its creative source rests in the 2003 work that is the present lot, at a time when the concept to come head-to-head with an increasingly commercialised world was at its rawest for the artist.
Since the beginning of his creative entrance into the art world, Ai Weiwei has sought to go against the currents of popular opinion, and has consistently broken various paradigms through his art. Unrelentingly inquisitive of the world around him, Ai never simply settles, but rather, creates powerful, introspective works that are at once simple in appearance but complex in context. Forever Bicycles is no different, and explores the perhaps adverse effects of a fast-paced, commercial world. Through this work, one can truly grasp Ai’s position as both artist and powerful critic.
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