Special Issue: Motorcycle--Beschleunigung und Rebellion?
motorcycle.speed.art: Creating the Exhibit “Motorcycle: Beschleunigung und Rebellion?”
The exhibition “Motorcycle: Beschleunigung und Rebellion?” held 28 May to 27 June 2009 at the Europäische Kunstakademie in Trier, Germany was designed and created by Steinmann+Steinmann, the talented husband and wife team of interior architects/artists: Clas and Maria Steinmann, with the help of their equally talented graphic designer son, Paul. Based on the structure and major themes of the exhibition catalog (Alford-Ferriss, Motorcycle) and the larger conceptual framework developed by Gerd Hurm, director of the Trier Center for American Studies, who had the initial vision for this innovative cultural studies exhibition project, the Steinmann team created an impressively innovative art show.
The Steinmanns were originally approached to create an exhibit of photo reproductions to accompany the series of lectures and films on the subject of motorcycles, speed and rebellion in the American 1950s organized by the Trier Center for American Studies. But once exhibit space at the Europäische Kunstakademie (EKA) was secured, the vision—and the scope of the project—expanded. Director Gabriele Lohberg challenged the Steinmanns to use the large exhibit hall as an art installation, not simply a photographic exhibit. They were inspired to create a large-scale exhibit that visually embodied the project’s themes.
Maria, a practicing interior architect with a thriving business, was tasked with planning the exhibit space in the EKA, an H-shaped expanse with high ceilings, and an attached hall to be used, in part, for lectures and films.
With Clas, she eventually
agreed on a plan to divide the vast expanse into two halls—the Hall of
Thrills (Erregung) and the Hall of
by the Axis of Acceleration (Beschleunigung),
a long corridor between the two larger halls. The attached lecture room, which could be opened to connect
to the Axis hallway, would be the Hall of Positions (Positionen), containing its own exhibits when not in use.
Maria and Clas
collaborated on the pieces that would constitute the show, dividing their contributions
to highlight their individual work. Clas would create graphic pieces that emphasized the technology of the
motorcycle, while Maria would be “the dirty girl,” as she put it. Gravitating toward the earthy, she
collected oily, rusted machines with worn seats for the Axis of Acceleration
hall to serve as a counterpoint to the shiny, polished surfaces of the new
Harley-Davidsons provided by the local dealership in Konz.
Originally, she envisioned a platform in the shape of a Figure 8 on which to display the bikes—old and new—to suggest motion from the static motorcycles as well as the links between past and present. But such an installation proved too costly, so instead, the bikes were stationed in highway formation between streetlights, conveying the paradox of speed at rest to viewers ambling between the two halls on foot. A video installation designed by Paul, served as a counterpoint: it played a loop consisting of extremely short video sequences of a motorcycle race. While the racers zip by at actual speed, the edited collage of sequences makes it seem their speed has been digitally enhanced. From the viewer’s perspective, they whiz by in a barely perceptible blur.
On the left, Maria Steinmann's original concept for a figure-8 installation. Image © Maria Steinmann. (Click to enlarge.)
On the right, the highway formation, featuring new Harley-Davidson models as well as older bikes.
Works by the Steinmanns—as well as works they selected by other artists and photographers—formed the remainder of the exhibit. The small lecture hall, the Hall of Positions, featured photographs by Matthew Linton, Gabrielle Keller and Michael Lichter, displayed artfully in lightboxes designed by Maria. Facing the five lightboxes on the opposite wall were five videoboxes, designed by Clas. Each contained a small DVD player displaying a loop of clips from famous motorcycle films. These clips, ranging from scenes from the TT races in the early 1920s to clips from contemporary motorcycle films, showcased the various ways motorcycles have been used in visual media.
Matthew Linton (two photos on left), Gabrielle Keller (center) and Michael Lichter (two on right).
The large, opening Hall of Thrills featured works created by Clas. Clas is perhaps best known in Europe for his large-scale sculptures, but his oeuvre includes book design, etchings, paintings, and photography. He employed an array of techniques—honed in his own work and in his years of teaching in the department of interior architecture at the Trier Fachhochschule—in realizing the vision of the exhibit: the place of motorcycling, speed and rebellion in the American 1950s.
Initially, Clas constructed a timeline of motorcycling, from its origins through the 1950s and beyond, gathering materials—from books, magazines, and the internet—to enhance his own understanding. The focus on post-war America recalled memories of his own childhood, listening to the American Forces Network when living with his family in Gießen following the war. The discovery of a trove of old German magazines in a local shop provided visual references. In spreads such as “Motorrad-Babies erobern die Welt” (“Motorcycle Babies are Conquering the World”), he realized that the sense of optimism and renewed openness to the world characteristic of the post-war era was connected to motorcycling. The motorcycle, in fact, emerged as an “icon of optimism.”
Images from "Sie und Er," nr. 12, 24 March 1950,
pages 16-17 and 32. (Click to enlarge.)
The predominant colors of
the post-war magazine spreads and advertisements—predominantly black and
white, with red for accent—provided him with a thematic color scheme for
the exhibit as well. The contrast
of red against black and white also embodied the contradictions of the
era. Alongside images of
experimental aircraft and fast machines, the magazines contained reminders of
Germany’s responsibility for the war. Articles in the weekly die Straße (the organ of a far right political party) offered excuses for the war but also
featured the “Motorrad-Babies”; others mused on Germany’s responsibility for
the invention of the atomic bomb, while including photos of exuberance, such as
a leaping man, “Antonio.” Articles
about the Nuremberg Trials and racism in the U.S. army (“America’s Big
Problem”) appeared alongside pictures of Soviet space dogs and images of land speed-record
The Hall of Thrills also included original artworks by Clas: a grouping of six posters called simply “Speed” and a sculptural installation called “Danger.” “Speed” offered digital images of sport bikes, stripped of all color, reduced to tones of gray and blurred to suggest motion. Clas explained in an interview that he added speed to bikes that were “frozen in the landscape” in their original photos. Geometrical shapes overlaid in red emphasized stasis, giving the impression of “looking through a window pane at the bike” and highlighted the paradox of presenting speed in still images.
Selections from "Speed" © Clas D. S. Steinmann. (Click to enlarge.)
“Danger,” a striking installation, dominated the hall’s center wall: twenty-eight gas canisters were affixed to the wall with bright orange straps. From each dangled a black wire, trailing to the floor as though dispensing black oil, but simultaneously suggestive of fuses, as may be used in dynamite. Glimpsed from the opposite hall, some viewers found them reminiscent of insect heads or faces, perhaps a serendipitous optical illusion fusing technology and nature, as, it could be argued, does the fusion of man and machine that is motorcycling.
On the left, Clas Steinmann's sketches for the "Danger" installation. Image © Clas D.S. Steinmann. (Click to enlarge.)
On the right, the "Danger" installation in the Hall of Thrills. (Click to enlarge.)
Directly opposite “Danger,” in the Hall of Riders, Clas installed six images of American bikers taken at Sturgis by professional photographer Michael Lichter. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the “Verfremdungseffekt” (to make something strange to itself), Clas had altered the original images, enlarging them to make them appear monumental. His intent had been to draw spectators to them, guiding them through the Axis of Acceleration and into the Hall of Riders. He also manipulated the color, enhancing the skin tones of the bikers so that all appeared slightly pale pink. (German viewers commented that they resembled raw pork.) They were further united as a group in that they were dressed almost identically in t-shirts with leather vests and bandanas, the classic garb of “outlaws” still emulating Marlon Brando’s 60-year-old look in The Wild One.
Clas Steinmann's enhanced images of Michael Lichter's photos of bikers at Sturgis. Images © Clas D.S. Steinmann. (Click to enlarge.)
Their enhanced sameness contrasted with other documentary photos taken by Lichter that were displayed nearby, one group of the Sturgis rally and a second of streamliners at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Bonneville photos featured the team required to mount a speed trial. Combined with the images of motorcyclists at Sturgis, the Lichter images were meant to convey the variety of social groupings centered on the motorcycle.
While such images may be common to American viewers, they are novelties to Germans, especially non-riders, who rarely—if ever—encounter motorcycle gatherings on the scale of Sturgis, which attracts over 400,000 visitors each year. (The mystique of Harley-Davidson embodied in the Sturgis rally, extends across the ocean as well.) The badges, pins and other tokens decorating the vests of the enlarged bikers focused attention on signs of participation, belonging and community.
Alongside a photo of the streamliner team at Bonneville, Clas had installed additional Lichter photos: a close-up of the streamliner’s engine and details of a brilliant yellow custom bike. Taken together, these pressed viewers to consider what defined a motorcycle. Arrayed horizontally, the streamliner’s engine resembled an automobile’s, an association augmented by the images of its all-enveloping protective fairing. The custom bike, by contrast, drew attention to the exposed V-twin engine dominating its spare frame. Yet, no cables, wires or mirrors were visible. The bike appeared stripped of all evidence of practical use and existed as pure art.
Reproductions of Michael Lichter's photgraphs of a streamliner engine (left) and a custom bike (right).
On the wall opposite, an installation of works by the artist Fahrnländer questioned the relationship between technology and nature. The six digitally produced images juxtaposed clawed mechanical implements against hyperreal tree branches and trunks. The smooth, silver metallic surfaces—illuminated from within by red light—of the machines contrasted starkly with the rough surfaces of tree bark. In some, it appeared the pointed appendages of the machines pierced the branches; in others they seemed to sprout as additional limbs or flowers. Such images invited viewers to question whether technology, including motorcycle technology, violates or enhances nature.
Three original installations at the opposite end of the Hall of Riders made the rider, rather than the machine, central. Though the rider him/herself was absent, the pieces inspired viewers to speculate on the embodied experience of riding and iconography meant to invoke it:
“Wind,” a sculpture by Clas, answers the question, “what is important for a rider?” He claimed that the sensation of air passing over a rider was “extraordinary,” a unique experience forged by the combination of the motorcycle and speed. Such a sensation cannot be duplicated on a bicycle, a scooter, a boat or even a roller coaster, he argued. But how can one express wind?
Clas Steinmann's sketch for the "Wind" installation. Image © Clas D.S. Steinmann. (Click to enlarge.)
Clas originally considered installing a large fan, perched in front of the line of motorcycles in the Axis of Acceleration, but feared it would be too loud. Instead, he substituted a clever, and no less impressive, scaled down version: tin toy motorcycles (which Maria had discovered in Köln) affixed by wire to small, noiseless, rotating fans. But how to mount and display them? He decided on an old iron bed frame, bought at a junkyard in the Eiffel region outside of Trier. The bed would serve as a counter to the speed of the wind against the toy machines, for what is the opposite of movement? Rest or sleep. A coat of gold paint covering the bed, fans and toy motorcycles united the whole into one sculptural installation. Imagining a rider reclining on the bed frame, viewers could picture him or her dreaming of speeding into the wind.
Left, the artist installing "Wind. Center: detail from "Wind." Right, "Wind" © Clas D.S. Steinmann. (Click to enlarge)
A group of four posters called “Longing” was also intended to capture the feeling of speed on a motorcycle. Produced using a graphics program called Cinema 4D, and later refined and enhanced in PhotoShop, the four posters picture motorcycles arrested in 3D space-time, the machines and the landscape often distorted to convey an emotion associated with motorcycling.
"Longing 1" © Clas D.S. Steinmann.
The first, registered in a brilliant red evocative at once of love, warmth and danger, presents a tiny female figure captured from above hovering over a motorcycle moving through a surrealistic landscape. It conveys the sensation of effortless riding, as though floating above, rather than on, the earth.The second, in black, white and grey—with red details—pictures a motorcycle from the side, with a tiny female figure at the center of its V-twin engine. She faces forward suggesting, in Clas’s words, that she “rules the machine with her thoughts.” The front fender appears to be breaking apart, leading viewers to speculate whether the woman is responsible. The third, which was featured in the exhibit’s promotional materials, features a red bike against a white background. It is a “Gestrüpp-bike” (a scrub or “undergrowth” bike) bike, a fantastic machine with branches or tentacles extending from its center. Is it a metaphor for the exhibit’s analytical bent, a comment on taking the motorcycle apart conceptually, or the machine’s insidious reach into consciousness and culture, or simply its dynamism? The fourth pictures a motorcycle on its side, presumably after an accident. The larger shadow beneath the bike reveals more detail: the chain is visible in the shadow, but not the bike itself, as is the front wheel. We envision it arrested after sliding on its side, wheels turning. The white space above draws attention to the absent rider, causing viewers to reflect on what might have happened: how does a rider feel when the machine is gone? To Clas, it conveys the despair of the rider separated from the machine.
"Longing 3" (left) and "Longing 4" (right) © Clas D.S. Steinmann.
The installation "Wings" © Maria Steinmann. (Click to enlarge)
“Wings” contrasted markedly with the futuristic graphic designs of the “Longing” series. Created by Maria, the installation offered a tactile experience fusing motorcycle fashion and flight. She had been struck by what she termed the “tribal markings” of motorcyclists, including skulls and other Gothic images gracing their clothing meant to inspire fear as well as convey the biker’s defiance of death. The wings featured in the Harley-Davidson logo captured her imagination. Did they simply represent flight? Or, like angels’ wings, signify protection? She found inspiration in the works of other artists who had used discarded materials, including feathers, such as Rebecca Horn and Jannis Kounellis. But she also considered the vests and jackets that featured the wings as foundational. She had been a friend of the clothing designer Fulan Sander, whose husband, after her death, had entreated Maria to use the remnants she left behind for artistic purposes. A part of the legacy Sander left Maria consisted of dress forms and clothing patterns. These Maria spread on the floor of the Steinmann’s garage and, Jackson Pollock-like, painted wing shapes on them using thick brushes dipped in black ink. (She had honed her technique earlier in creating paintings based on Japanese calligraphy. In the installation, she hung the wings as the dress patterns would have in a tailor’s shop, dangling by strings from hooks identified by the wearer’s name. In this case, Maria listed famous motorcyclists—real and fictional—from Dot Robinson to Burt Munro.
A detail of Maria Steinmann's experiments for "Wings," painted on a page in a 1901 copy book. (Click to enlarge)
While clothing may have inspired these wings, they were not intended—or suitable—for actual wear. As she said, “even if clothes were made into wings, they could not fly.” Instead, her wings conveyed the transcendent experience of riding. Speeding on a motorcycle is like leaving contact with the earth, flying on the ground. Yet, since every rider is conscious of the possibility of death, the association of wings with death was also intentional. In fact, Maria designed some of the wing patterns based on Albrecht Dürer’s engravings of winged creatures, including Melancholia and Nemesis (Das Grosse Glück), that stress such associations. However, others were based on Werner Nachtigal’s Warum die Vögel fliegen (Why Birds Fly), a book on the science of flight, and she claims that her installation emphasizes the more general associations with flight. In keeping with her emphasis on the tactile, she encouraged viewers to touch the wings and even rearrange them.
While there can be no substitute for being actually immersed in the exhibit as a viewer, we can, through the gracious assistance of the Steinmanns, offer readers a virtual tour through the video images below (created by Paul).
Click on the images and move the cursor to the left and to the right to “tour” the exhibit. Panoramas © Paul Steinmann.
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