Thursday, January 12, 2012

Art, China and Bikes

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who designed the Bird's Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics and is often incarcerated à la Aung San Suu Kyi (except he gets locked up in China while she's confined in Burma) has just had his Bicycles Forever installation installed at at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.  

It's 1,200 bikes (actually half-bikes: frame, fork and wheels, that's it) joined and stacked together to create what the museum describes as a "...layered labyrinthine space [that] creates what appears to be a moving abstract shape that symbolises the way in which the social environment in China is changing."

Now, when it comes to art, I'm a bit of a philistine so I won't go passing judgement on this. That won't be useful to anyone. For me, the installation looks pretty impressive and I'm sure it would be even more so to actually see it in the flesh metal. I like big things. If there's a big building, I like to go up it. If there's a big hamburger, I like to eat it. And while, as I said, I don't know much about art, I find I'm drawn to big paintings. I'm impressed by big buildings wrapped in big blankets. So, it should come as no surprise that I'm also impressed by a ten-metre high "installation" made of almost-bicycles. What's more, it has bicycles, which I also like.

I guess it might make sense to use bicycles to represent Chinese society. After all, it was once known as the Kingdom of Bikes. And for good reason. For example, here's Beijing in 1986, when cycling accounted for 63% of traffic in the capitol;

And here it is in 1991;

In the 1990s, the government encouraged the purchasing of cars. The country was flooded with just five models; the Santana, Jetta, Citroen, Fiat Charade and Fiat 126p. As a result, nowadays bicycle use has fallen to represent only 18% of Beijing's traffic. What's more, 44% of motorised vehicles travel at less then 5 km/h. Here's Beijing in 2007;

So, while I really like Ai Weiwei's installation, the use of bicycles in the work is perhaps inconsistent with, or even contradictory to, the message it's professing to portray. He should have used lots of pollution or people. But bicycles? Well, unfortunately, they're on the way down. Or maybe I just don't understand...


  1. Great use of pictures in this blog!! There are still lots of bicycles in Beijing, but as you rightly note, lots of cars too. The city is filled with awful polluting smog from the traffic, but also bicycles everywhere. Their bike parking is hilarious. It is a shame that so many people have opted for cars. In addition to the role of the government, having a car is also seen as a status symbol, so there are many motivations for purchasing and using a car over a bike. :(

  2. Very good written article. It will be supportive to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts. Bikes or Bicycles I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.