The promotional music video is a significant sub-genre of the bicycle film. As I’ve noted on this blog, there are many examples of music videos that use the bicycle as a central prop, spanning a range of musical styles from hip hop to punk. One reason for the association of bicycles and popular music may be that the music video has its roots partly in the musical comedies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the films Richard Lester made with the Beatles. The earlier film has its aesthetic roots in the monochrome ‘kitchen-sink’ realism of the British new wave and TV dramas, but the colourful, surreal Help! introduces a playful stylistic template for the music video, and the scene in which the band are capering around on bicycles in the Bahamas (or on bizarre ski-bikes in the Austrian alps) perhaps introduces the association between bicycles and pop.


In turn, this ensures that the opening credits to The Monkees TV series (1966-1968) the following year show those Beatles clones messing around on bikes, and this is cemented with Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (Hickox, 1968), a short ‘swinging London’ pop musical that cites the colourful film musicals of Jacques Demy.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 15.35.19.png 1967 Austin 1800 MkI [ADO17] in "Les ...

Perhaps, too, in so far as pop music has been made by and for young people since the 1960s, the bicycle epitomises the celebration of youth in post-war European and US culture (where the car has signified adulthood and maturity).

I was reminded of the association between bikes and pop music again reading an article in The Guardian newspaper a couple of weeks ago in which electro-punk musician Peaches (Merrill Nisker) reflects on how she came to form a band. The article includes a link to her first low-budget, DIY video for ‘Lovertits’ (2000), one of the first songs she wrote. It is a very simple film that cross-cuts between shots of Peaches singing, jumping and dancing energetically in front of a mirror, like any teenage music fan, and shots of a couple of women riding low-rider chopper bikes. It looks like an ageing VHS video, with scan lines, and ‘Auto tracking’ messages flashing on screen, and so the low-tech format matches the retro simplicity of the synth-and-drum-machine track that cites the music of New York band Suicide. In the cycling sequences the two women ride along an alley talking and laughing before pulling up alongside one another where they start to caress the frames and handlebars of their bikes suggestively while they stare at each other and pout. They run their lips, mouths and fingers over the chrome and the saddles before remounting their bikes, circling one another and then riding off laughing.

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The fuzzy low-resolution shots of the cyclists don’t bear any direct relation to the song, which is about a relationship breaking up – an anti-love song – but they are rich with meaning. The bicycle is a perfect analogy for the low-tech, obsolete medium of the VHS tape, and the low-tech sound of the music. However, the video is also a succinct commentary on the fetishistic, eroticised relationship we have with technology in general, and with bicycles in particular. This association has been a preoccupation of commentary on cycling since the late 19th century, and the voicing of concerns about the vitiating erotic potential of the bicycle has also been one of the ways in which anxieties about women’s social and political independence have been expressed.

Given that the genitals are a sensitive interface between body and bike, it is perhaps unsurprising that the auto-erotic pleasure of cycling was a focus of early discourses on women’s cycling, with Victorian medical studies warning that, as well as making women more manly and hindering their reproductive capacity, ‘[t]he bicycle teaches masturbation in women and girls’ (Garvey, 74). One consequence was the development of women’s saddles with a cut-out section to prevent contact with the vulva, but as cultural historian Ellen Gruber Garvey observes drily, ‘The issues metaphorized in the medical attacks on bicycle masturbation are obviously too deep and complex to be addressed by changing the bicycle saddle’ (Garvey, 78). Instead what was at issue was that ‘both the bicycling woman and the masturbating woman were out of male control’. It is appropriate, then, that the 2015 guide to women’s cycling published by feminist cycling activist Elly Blue is entitled Our Bodies, Our Bikes, borrowing its title from the classic, empowering publication, Our Bodies Ourselves.

Inevitably, there is a minor narrative tradition of film and literature addressing the fetishization of the bicycle extending from Flann O’Brien’s absurd fantasy novel The Third Policeman – whose protagonist rhapsodizes of his bike, ‘How desirable her seat was, how charming the invitation of her slim encircling handle-arms, how unaccountably competent and reassuring her pump resting warmly against her rear thigh!’ – through Rainer Ganahl’s art installation Etant Donné – Use a Bicycle (2011) – a reworking of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (1946-1966) that incorporates a 16mm film of a woman masturbating with a bicycle wheel in droll reference to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel ‘readymade’ (1913) – and on to the sex-positive, feminist and queer ‘Bike Smut’ film festival (2006-2017) that specializes in low-budget bicycle-related art films, pornography and performance. The video for ‘Lovertits’ belongs to this multi-media tradition, using the bicycle as the focus for a defiantly queer celebration of female sexuality, and a joyful declaration of independence that echoes the singer’s instruction to her jilted lover: ‘You’re gonna have to give it up.’



Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Reframing the Bicycle: Advertising-Supported Magazines and Scorching Women”, American Quarterly, no. 47 (1 March 1995): 66-101










I came across this film earlier this week when it was mentioned on a music website, since it features a new song by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It’s a promotional film for a New York fashion label featuring a couple of up-and-coming screen actors, and lensed by the celebrated Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has worked as director of photography on films by directors such as David Fincher, Wong Kar-Wai, Danny Boyle and Michael Haneke. However, for me what is most striking and surprising about the film is the use of the unique camera rigs designed by British experimental film-maker, Tony Hill, an artist whose work I’ve been interested in since seeing the dizzying Downside Up (1984) some thirty years ago, as well as Peter Care’s 1985 video for the song ‘Sensoria’ by Cabaret Voltaire that used the same rig. More recently Hill collaborated with the remarkable director Andrew Kötting on his latest film, Eden Walks (2017), which Andrew screened for us at the Mobilities Literature Culture conference I co-organised in Lancaster University in 2017.

Hill has produced a singular body of film and video pieces that explore systematically the different ways in which mobile cameras see the world. As it happens, he has also produced some of the most formally self-conscious examinations of the relationship between cinema and the bicycle. At just over a minute long, his 2013 film, Bike, shows a man setting off on a leisurely bicycle ride, and comprises shots from three cameras, one mounted inside a wheel rim, one on a pedal, and one looking down on the rider from above; the resulting images are so radically disorienting that viewing the film is a uncomfortable experience. In general Hill’s films show us images of familiar scenes – streets, beaches, swimming pools, gardens, faces – that are made strange through unconventional camera placement.

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What we see in Bike is a defamiliarizing machine’s-eye view, the camera moving through space in ways that are physically impossible for a person. Rather than a brief film of a middle-aged man riding a bicycle, Bike is a bewildering, kinetic collision of distorted, shifting perspectives on the world in which the movements of the machines – cameras and bicycle – are the focus, rather than the rider.


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Rotation is also the subject of A Short History of the Wheel (1992), which dissolves from shots of slowly turning cart wheels – the camera revolving with the wheels, so that the world appears to spin while the wheels remain still at the centre of the image – to the wheel of a tractor, then a car, then a bicycle. Literally revolutionary, this 60-second film makes a quietly provocative claim in placing the bicycle at the end of this narrative sequence. As Hill remarks, the film starts ‘with a primitive hand-drawn cart and [moves] through horsepower and machine age tractor and car to the ultimate wheeled transport, the bicycle’.

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One of the fascinating features of Hill’s films is that the cameras move in apparently impossible ways. It is difficult to work out how the images we see on screen have been achieved. However, in this new film, finally, the ingenious rigs themselves are as much the focus of the film as the shots they are achieving, since the film shows us actors and dancers – and Hill himself – operating the rigs inside an empty warehouse.

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It reveals the way the shots are achieved, and it is appropriate that one of these devices – presumably a version of the contraption used to shoot A Short History of the Wheel – is essentially a four-wheeled variation on the bicycle. Cinema and the modern bicycle are communications technologies that developed almost simultaneously in response to the demand for greater speed and mobility that characterises late 19th century modernity, and this hybrid machine is the very embodiment of that history, fusing the camera with the bicycle.

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Undertaking this research on the history of bicycles and cinema has involved looking differently at films. As well as noting those scenes in films and TV programmes where characters are riding bikes, trikes and all sorts of related mobility aids, I’ve found myself continually noticing the fleeting presence of bicycles in the background of street shots or dumped in the corners and hallways of characters’ houses. The bright green American-made mountain bike hanging on the wall of Jerry’s New York apartment in the sitcom Seinfeld is a particularly visible example. Although we never see him cycling, nevertheless the bike is a prop that conveys information about the character – his concern with his health, his slavish attention to urban fashions, and his impulsiveness; like most exercise equipment anybody ever buys that sits unused in a garage or cupboard, it is a mute reminder of failed ambitions to remodel his life.

So, analyzing the significance of bicycles in film involves a different way of looking at filmic space. Scanning the film image for the presence of a bike means paying particular attention to the mise-en-scène of the film – the sets and locations – and what quickly becomes clear is that the cinema is full of bicycles, although they are often far less loaded with meaning than Jerry’s bike. A bicycle is sometimes just a stubbornly distracting flash of colour, shape or movement in the film frame – an element of the visual texture of the image.


Inevitably, watching Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit (2017) earlier this week – in preparation for a new course I’m teaching on women directors this autumn – it was a bicycle that caught my eye. In the film’s account of the outbreak of the riots in July 1967, it is the theft of a bicycle that triggers the disorder. The film opens with a police raid on an unlicensed bar; as the occupants are arrested and loaded into black Marias on the street, a crowd gathers and starts protesting. As the police withdraw, the crowd begin to throw bottles and stones at their vehicles, shouting, jeering and laughing, and then one man breaks open the shutters and smashes a shop window across the street, pulling a gold bicycle out of the window display. A few others join him in emptying the window, and the film then shows us buildings being torched, and the city burning, as violence escalates with the national guard and the army being brought in to support the police.


Although the bicycle is a marginal detail, in the context of a film about the ‘motor city’ (and Motown) it is a reminder of the various inequalities experienced by African-Americans. The film’s prologue explains that after the first world war, African-Americans migrated north in search of industrial jobs and a less segregated society, although they found themselves dealing with unemployment, economic hardship and a different, less overt form of segregation as white Americans evacuated cities for the economic security and racial homogeneity of the suburbs. In this sense, the film is a meditation upon racialized mobility, telling a story of economic migrants who have found themselves stranded in a city with vanishingly few escape routes (and subject to curfew during the riots). The fact that Detroit was home to America’s major automobile plants – General Motors, Packard, Chrysler – and was thus central to a culture that regards automobility as a right and an essential freedom, and car ownership as a sign of adulthood, compounds a bitterly ironic sense of the unequal distribution of mobility. Whereas in a European film, the shiny bicycle might have been a rich symbol of freedom, mobility, and employment, in this film by the most American of directors, it is a sign of the opposite, a reminder of how little agency the angry protestors have.


Kathryn Bigelow’s critical reputation is that of a particularly self-aware film-maker. University-educated, with a background in the NYC art scene and a familiarity with cultural and literary theory as well as film history, her films tend to be regarded as critical reflections upon the film genres she works with; not just war films, action films, or science fiction films, but formally innovative interrogations of the ideological structures and value systems embedded in mainstream cinema. In that respect, the fact that the riots begin with a bicycle theft invites us to think about the relationship between Detroit and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] (1948). A key example of post-war Italian neo-realist cinema, Bicycle Thieves has provided a template for low-budget, politically committed film-making around the world, as well as serving as a measure of artistic accomplishment; as Woody Allen observed glumly in a 2015 interview, ‘You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn’t happen’. Although she is a big-budget Hollywood director, Bigelow’s last three films have been an exploration of cinematic realism, blurring the boundaries between historical reconstruction, reportage, documentary and fiction. This trio of narratives about state violence, The Hurt Locker (2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Detroit, were all written by a former journalist, Mark Boal, while Detroit and The Hurt Locker were lensed by British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who previously worked on several major films by Ken Loach. For Detroit, Ackroyd had vintage lenses mounted on the digital cameras used by the crew, to achieve a historically authentic visual quality, as the film intercuts digitally shot footage with stock film and photography from the 1960s. Thus, in Boal and Ackroyd, Bigelow has found collaborators who are similarly preoccupied with questions of accuracy.


So, while the stolen bicycle is a minor narrative and visual detail in Bigelow’s long, dense film, it offers us a key to understanding the intentions of the film-makers to produce a film that approaches its brutal material with a similar degree of authenticity, empathy and anger to that displayed by De Sica’s film.


From professional racers preoccupied with calorie intake and optimizing their power-to-weight ratio to leisure cyclists preparing their picnic for a gentle Sunday morning ride, or planning a route that takes in pubs and cafés, food plays a crucial role in cycling culture. Food is the fuel that drives the engine that powers the bicycle, and as novelist John Waddington puts it, ‘one way of looking at a racing cyclist [is as] a protein machine that converts carbohydrate into heat and energy at an exorbitant rate. Matter to movement. Sweat ‘n’ spirit. Shit ‘n’ dreams.’


I didn’t know until this afternoon, when my neighbour Harold brought one round, that there was such a thing as a cycling cake: the ‘Paris-Brest’. It was apparently commissioned from Parisian pâtissier Louis Durand in 1910 to commemorate one of the first long-distance cycle races, the Paris-Brest-Paris. Shaped like a wheel, it is made from glazed choux pastry, filled with buttercream and sprinkled with almonds. And it was delicious.


One of the curious features of the food culture around contemporary cycling is the rise of  the ‘energy gel’, little pouches of sugary, salty gloop that you can ejaculate into your mouth while moving, for a quick carbohydrate shot. Coming in a range of sickly flavours, they taste pretty unpleasant, and exemplify the functional concept of food as fuel rather than source of aesthetic pleasure, prompting Chris Boardman, former pro racer and Manchester’s new ‘Cycling and Walking Commissioner’ (who has probably consumed more of these than most of us ever will) to ask last week, ‘Why would you squeeze something of that consistency into your mouth when you could have a sandwich?’

Even more to the point, why have a sandwich when you could pause for a Paris-Brest?



James Waddington (1999). Bad to the Bone (Sawtry: Dedalus)

There have been many songs written about bicycles since the 19th century, but I hadn’t realised until recently that Hawkwind’s 1972 space-rock classic, ‘Silver Machine’ was one of them. I’d always assumed the song was actually about a motorbike, perhaps because I was introduced to it by a biker friend when I was a student. However, it seems that Robert Calvert wrote the song after reading the speculative essay, ‘How to Construct a Time Machine’, by avant-garde playwright, novelist and obsessive cyclist Alfred Jarry. Calvert noted that the impossible machine described by Jarry was really a bicycle, consisting of flywheels, chain drives, gears and a rigid, ebony frame.


Indirectly, Jarry’s short piece identifies a key feature of the bicycle, which is its capacity to alter our experience of time and space, allowing the rider to travel much faster than was possible on foot, effectively shrinking the distance between locations and the time it takes to travel that distance. As he explains, ‘Without the Machine, an observer sees less than half of the true extent of Time, much as men used to regard the Earth as flat.’

Or, as Hawkwind put it, ‘It flies sideways through time.’


While passing through the Gare du Nord in Paris on Sunday, returning home from a conference at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, I came upon this mobile phone charging station, an apparatus that represents a fascinating intersection and modulation of old communications media or technologies – the bicycle and the telephone (and the railway). Resembling nothing so much as a sculpture by Richard Artschwager, there is an obvious irony in the use of a stationary exercise bicycle to power a mobile phone, resulting in a virtual mobility, but it also makes explicit the central principle of the bicycle as a machine, which is that it is dependent upon human labour. With the stationary bicycle this principle is made explicit, and while this particular machine is presumably intended to encourage users and passers-by to think about environmental politics and the importance of healthy living, it has a darker history.

Its precursors include the dystopian science fiction film, Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973), in the opening scene of which the protagonists must use a bicycle to generate electricity for their cramped apartment in a future in which over-population, global warming and scarcity of food has plunged society into chaos.


Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson in Soylent Green

A more recent real-world iteration is the ‘Pedal Vision’ system introduced in an Arizona prison in 2010 which requires inmates to generate electricity by riding a stationary bike in order to be to allowed to watch TV.


The Pedal Vision device

This disciplinary technology is a way of encouraging prisoners to exercise, and is also a way of making them accustomed to repetitive manual labour, but of course this device belongs to a penal tradition of hard labour in which exhausting, pointless work is a form of punishment. The pedal vision machine is thus a modern derivation of sadistic devices installed in Victorian prisons such as the treadmill or the crank.  ‘The crank’ was a handle attached to a paddle inside a drum filled with sand. The crank pushed the paddle through the sand and was attached to a counter, and prisoners had to complete a certain number of revolutions – up to 10,000 per day – to earn their meals. Prison officers could tighten the screw on the crank making it harder to turn (hence the slang term for prison guards: screws).


The Crank

There are various conclusions we might draw from this about the disciplinary nature of contemporary exercise cultures, but at the very least it suggests that utopian concepts of the bicycle as an emancipatory device rest on a selective historical account of the development of the machine.



I have been involved with co-organizing and running an international, interdisciplinary conference Mobilities Literature Culture, which took place at Lancaster University at the end of last week. It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable research events I’ve participated in, bringing together artists and academics working in a variety of fields from science and technology studies through to mediaeval history, literary theory, tourism studies and continental philosophy. The conference opened with a superb plenary presentation by my friend Kat Jungnickel on Victorian women’s cycling costumes, ‘Secret Cycling Selves: How Victorian women negotiated multiple mobile identities through patented cycle wear’. Focusing on the 1890s and drawing on archival research her paper examined the sometimes elaborately engineered cycling outfits designed and patented by Victorian women to allow them to ride bicycles safely, comfortably and, crucially, with minimal verbal and physical abuse. Riding a bicycle – even one with a step-through frame – in a voluminous walking skirt with petticoats, bustles and corsets was both difficult and dangerous as the metres of fabric could easily get tangled in wheels and chains or snagged on other bikes, vehicles or obstacles. However, for some middle-class women riding in ‘rational’ clothing such as bloomers was too radical a gesture, since rational cycling wear was revealing (exposing the movement of the legs), was regarded as non-feminine, and was also politically confrontational, closely associated as it was with the suffrage movement. The ingenious solution for the designers discussed by Kat was to engineer skirts that could be transformed into practical riding apparel when cycling, and could be converted back to a skirt when the rider dismounted (as if she were a discreet Victorian superhero). For the presentation, Kat wore a Victorian outfit and concluded the presentation by climbing onto a chair to demonstrate the Bygrave ‘Convertible’ skirt (which she manufactured from the original patent with a research team) using hidden cords to gather the ground-length skirt into knee-length festoons that would allow the rider to mount and ride a bicycle easily and with attracting undue attention.

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Action-academic Kat Jungnickel (photographed by Jo Taylor) demonstrating the Bygrave skirt.

Blurring the boundaries between academic presentation and performance art in quite a unique way, the paper also exposed the huge gaps in histories of the bicycle and cycling culture with regard both to women cyclists, and to the central role played by women in developing and manufacturing bicycles and the accompanying technology. The paper was derived from the research project, Bikes and Bloomers, and is the basis for a forthcoming book.


The conference closed with a preview screening of Edith Walks, the newest film by director Andrew Kötting, a prolific film-maker, writer and visual artist whose films have been preoccupied with landscape, movement, travel, and literary and cultural histories (and who, in the sort of serendipity that structures all of his work, happened to have worked with Kat on one of his early projects, Mapping Perception). Made on the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the film is a fragmentary, comic account of a 108-mile walk made by Andrew and five others, from Waltham Abbey where some of King Harold’s body parts are supposedly buried, to St Leonard’s-on-Sea, where there is a weathered seafront statue of a dying Harold in the arms of his ‘hand fast maiden’ ‘Edith Swan-neck’. As Andrew explained in the Q and A afterwards, the film is a visually rich ‘bricolage’ that was largely shot on iphones and is accompanied by a soundtrack that blends location sound, music and samples in a similarly dense collage. Andrew, who is dressed as the ghost of Harold in the film, was accompanied by his close collaborator Iain Sinclair, performance artist Claudia Barton – who was embodying Edith – photographer Anonymous Bosch, and musicians David Aylward and Jem Finer (late of the pogues). The point of the walk, Sinclair explains at the beginning of the film which was shot in the run-up to the EU referendum, is to ‘explore English values’, and the film’s central argument is that history is not consigned to the depths of the past but continually resurfaces in the form of reconfigured narratives and unanchored images; as the writer Alan Moore observes at one point, ‘the past is never put away’. It was an extraordinary film as well as the perfect conclusion to the conference.

Andrew related in the post-screening Q and A with my friend Brian Baker and myself that his approach to film-making and creation was dependent upon ‘happenstance’, and it is clear with a number of his films that he is concerned less with telling stories, than with staging encounters or loosely planned situations and then documenting on film and video the unpredictable ways that these encounters play out. One of the things I have always found powerful about Andrew’s films is that they encourage you to look differently at the landscape around you, to see its strangeness, but also to notice and reflect upon the significance of small details, of connections and repetitions, contingency and coincidence.

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Edith Walks (Kötting, 2017) – Aylward, Barton, Kötting, Finer

As an example, having written a short blog entry about bicycle music last week, I was struck by a brief scene where the motley troupe intercept a couple of cyclists on their walk and begin making music from their bicycles, Finer and Aylward using violin bows to play the spokes, while Barton sings along with them. As Andrew explained, in ‘playing the bicycles’ they were also ‘playing the landscape’

While the bicycle has been a topic for song-writers and musicians since the 19th century, there is a rather more specialized history of music made with bicycles that encompasses avant-garde experimentation and novelty. This well-known clip of a young Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963 is a nice example of a performance that sits mid-way between comedy and glorious, atonal noise.

This rarely viewed YouTube video of somebody ‘performing’ John Cage’s 4’33” on a bicycle raises the question of what constitutes music perhaps more radically still than Zappa’s improvised performance.

What made me think about this was coming across a clip on late-night TV a couple of weeks ago of the British synth-pop group Depeche Mode playing the song ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ on Top of the Pops back in 1984. I know the song well, but it wasn’t until watching the clip that I realized the clattering noise in the song was produced by a drumstick held against a spinning bicycle wheel, a technique that Zappa also uses above. Depeche Mode were supposedly influenced by contemporary ‘industrial’ groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept., who built their own percussion instruments and incorporated found objects, motors, and pneumatic drills into their armoury of noise-making machinery. It’s unlikely that Depeche Mode had seen the Zappa clip in a pre-internet period; in any case, many young kids have taped pieces of card to their bicycle frames so that they flick against the spinning spokes, allowing them to pretend they are riding a motorbike. What is striking is not so much the parallels with Zappa’s music, but the fact that the instrument they are using seems to be an appropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture. Duchamp made the object as a soothing visual distraction to gaze at in his studio, but the band have found a different use for it as a jarring aural distraction, an interruption of the smooth surface of the synthesiser music that complements the song’s weighty themes – teenage suicide and a sadistic God. However, rather than a pretentious or naive dilution of avant-garde experimentation – an accusation that could be levelled at Zappa’s performance – it seems to me to be a technologically creative solution to a search for an expanded repertoire of noises, and it also demonstrates vividly the way that, however ephemeral, ‘modish’, or formally simple it may appear to be, popular culture is always embedded in complex cultural histories and aesthetic traditions.

iur.jpegMarcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951 – 3rd version)

I was fortunate enough this Easter, to be able to see the Law of the Journey, a new show by exiled Chinese activist artist Ai WeiWei, mounted in the National Gallery in Prague. The show brings together some recent epic work that addresses the refugee crisis in a dramatic register including the title piece, a huge inflatable boat carrying dozens of passengers made from the same material suspended above a series of quotations from writing by Franz Kafka, Socrates, Edward Said, Vaclav Havel and others. Like a giant children’s toy, it is a temporary, mobile monument to the thousands of adults and children who’ve drowned in the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe in the last decade.

IMG_7279.jpgMy son studying Law of the Journey (Prague National Gallery)

Among the pieces included in the show were also a couple of bicycle-related works. Ai has been making art from bicycles for some time now, and has produced some immense sculptural installations constructed from ‘Forever’ bicycles, the most ubiquitous Chinese brand. Some of these structures, such as those exhibited in Tokyo in 2003, Taipei in 2012, and San Gimigniano and Toronto in 2013, involve anything from several dozen to several thousand identical frames and wheels welded together to form geometrically dense, architectural spaces through which the viewer can walk.

IMG_5412.jpgIMG_5409.jpgOne of Ai’s ‘Forever’ bicycle pieces exhibited at the Royal Academy retrospective, London, 2015

Like much of Ai’s work this has a political register; as well as citing Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture and a tradition of minimalist art, they are a visual crystallization of a society structured by mass production and the homogeneous, industrialized urban environments that many of us live in. As Ai has declared, ‘China is producing for the demands of the market [and] my work very much relates to this blind production of things’ (Bingham 2010: 24). Juliet Bingham recounts that, in his art practice, ‘Ai has often taken objects and rendered them useless’, and, indeed, the bicycle sculptures transform this most useful of objects into something entirely devoid of use-value – into art (Ibid. 25).

More recently, the bicycle sculptures have found an echo in the piles of discarded hire bicycles left on the streets in Shenzhen. Like artless copies of Ai’s intricate assemblages, these tangled heaps are a sign of the changing significance of the bicycle in China where, as elsewhere, car ownership is a desirable indicator of social status.


The brand name, ‘Forever’, lends this commentary upon the over-production and irrationality of a market economy a chillingly dystopian tone, but in addition to this broadly critical commentary, the later pieces also serve as memorials to Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who was arrested in 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Having made allegations of police brutality, Yang was executed in 2008 for an attack on a police headquarters and the revenge killing of six police officers. With the trial held behind closed doors, Yang’s became a cause célebre since, for some commentators, Yang’s action was seen as a form of protest against an oppressive regime. Considered in this context, Ai’s works put the bicycle to use as a vehicle for political protest.

IMG_7263.jpgIMG_7266.jpgWith Flowers (details) (Prague National Gallery)

An example of this in the Prague exhibition was an installation in the gallery café entitled With Flowers (2013-2015). The modest exhibit consisted of the artist’s bicycle – significantly perhaps, a Taiwanese ‘Giant’ bike, rather than a Chinese brand –  propped discreetly against a wall, and colourful digital prints of bouquets of flowers with dates, pasted around the room. The piece was created during a two-year period in which Ai was banned from travelling outside China. In protest, he placed his bicycle outside his studio and put a fresh bouquet of flowers in the basket every morning until the travel ban was lifted and his passport was returned. In a very simple way, the association of the bicycle with freedom of movement, takes on a political significance in this work. The second related piece of bicycle-art, displayed in a gallery of ceramic pieces, was a bicycle basket made from porcelain. An improbable object, it transforms the mundane plastic basket and gaudy flowers into delicate, intricate work of art. As subtle as any of his works, the object establishes a link between activism and traditions of decorative art in Europe and China, and it also represents a defiant insistence upon beauty in the face of political repression.


Bicycle basket with flowers in porcelain (2014) (Prague National Gallery)


Juliet Bingham (2010). Ai WeiWei: Sunflower Seeds (London: Tate)

gyIuPd5E.jpg-large.jpegBy far the most striking film I have seen in the last year was the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 Napoleon. Running at just over five-and-a-half hours (although in early screenings the film apparently ran to around nine hours), it is an example of the level of exuberant formal experimentation and stylistic refinement achieved by European directors before the introduction of synchronised sound film in the late 1920s forced filmmakers to adopt a far less dynamic aesthetic. Given its date, the film has a somewhat troubling political message. It is a stirringly nationalistic account of French history that reveres Napoleon as not just a brilliant military strategist, but a charismatic saviour of the nation who embodies the spirit of the Revolution (and Albert Dieudonne’s fascinating performance as Napoleon is suitably intense). In the present moment when fascism, nationalism and xenophobia are once again on the rise across Europe, and populist demagogues are becoming increasingly powerful, the re-released film takes on a new and disturbing urgency.


However, the most arresting and celebrated aspect of the film is its frenetic, varied style, which includes multiple exposures, super-fast montage editing, rich tinting, split-screen effects, and an extraordinary final battle sequence that expands to fill three screens, an innovative device that Gance termed ‘polyvision’. It remains breathtakingly spectacular, even when viewed alongside contemporary blockbuster effects movies. Throughout the film the camera is wildly mobile as Gance mounts it on sledges, horses, carts, cars, boats, pulleys and a pendulum, and even, with ironic aptness, a guillotine. This is no stylistically conservative heritage film, offering us picturesque, static views of the past; History, in Gance’s film, is depicted as an interval of dynamic, chaotic exciting instability and violence. At one point, while shooting an uprising in Corsica for the first part of the film, in order to produce a further variation on the mobile shot, the film-makers also used a bicycle as a dolly, with the camera-man sitting astride the bicycle and facing backwards, the camera strapped to the frame for stability while crew members pushed him along the street in front of the rampaging crowd.


Gance is not alone in experimenting with the thrilling narrative possibilities of camera mobility. Cinema in the 1920s is full of examples of films that explore the medium’s capacity to produce the illusion of physical movement. Gance’s German counterpart, Friedrich Murnau, for example, was preoccupied with achieving what he termed the ‘unchained camera effect’, working with camera operator Karl Freund to develop new techniques that would allow the camera to plunge and soar freely. As historian Lotte Eisner records, this experimentation culminated with his 1924 film The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)  in which ‘the camera was taken from the trolley and put on a crane, or attached to Freund’s chest while he rode a bicycle, and so on’ (Eisner 1973: 75). However, the theme of this current project is the exploration of the historical relationship between the socially and culturally revolutionary technologies of the film camera and the bicycle, and so it couldn’t be more appropriate that they intersect so directly, albeit briefly, in the production of Gance’s singular revolutionary film.


Lotte H. Eisner (1973) Murnau (London: Secker and Warburg)