How motorcycles became objects of art and desire


For better or worse, motorcycles have, over the decades, given art and entertainment some pivotal, iconic moments. Marlon Brando’s adventures on his Triumph Thunderbird 6T in The Wild One come to mind, as do the Harley-Davidsons of Easy Rider. One also might think of the socially-minded repurposing of motorcycle imagery by Sydney-based artist Cigdem Aydemir, and her memorable 2017 performance piece The Ride.

The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) exhibition The Motorcycle is an exploration of both the symbolism of these machines and their evolving design and technological innovation. On display will be a number of pioneering models from—if you know your motorcycles—a rare 1906 Spencer through to a 2019 Fuller Moto ‘2029’.

“The exhibition tells a compelling story of invention, design and the elevation of the motorcycle beyond function to object of art and desire,” says GOMA’s design manager Michael O’Sullivan. “There are key motorcycles that have very obvious connections to popular art and design movements of the 20th century.”

To balance this focus on engineering, The Motorcycle includes the art exhibition Full Face: Artists’ Helmets, showcasing a number of Australian artists responding to a unique commission, including Shaun Gladwell, Guan Wei and TextaQueen.

“15 contemporary Australian artists were invited to individualise a Biltwell Gringo ECE motorcycle helmet, capitalising on its sculptural form,” says O’Sullivan. “The title Full Face refers to the type of helmet chosen as the base model.” With their attention piqued by the task of reconceptualising the helmet, the chosen artists have either responded to the form of the helmet, or to motorcycling culture in general.

These responses, the design manager says, range “from the personal through to the political.”

The Motorcycle
Gallery of Modern Art
28 November—26 April 2021

This article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Barnaby Smith