Hogs @ Craft

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Iconophilia asks: Is this craft, design, or a kind of outsider art? Whatever you may decide, just watch Craft ACT expand its audience with the current exhibition. Custom Made is curated by Jas Hugonnet and, as they say, “ventures into the territory of large scale crafted objects”. Which translates as: there are five very shiny modified Harley Davidson craftworks currently on show at Craft ACT. Even their names are downright sexy: there are three Softails, a V-Rod and a Deuce.  And that’s the Harleys, not the staff…

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Last night we heard the curator Jas Hugonnet in conversation with the owners of these labours of love: Corey Allen, Geoff Noakes, Ralph Smith (above, from Chopperworks) and Jon Desprez, who Jas credits with the original idea of the show. For the audience the discussion provided insights into the world of fetish objects the likes of which you’ve never seen in an art gallery before.

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Some background and some challenges: eighty-five years ago the world of art was cracked open by the inclusion of “industrial design” within the high temple of modern art: MoMA. In 1934 New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented the art world with Machine Art curated by the architectural modernist Philip Johnson. The exhibits included everyday domestic and industrial items from clocks to chairs to insulators, machinery and laboratory glassware, all presented in the same manner as works of art. Ever since, Design has been a core element in their collecting policy. Inclusion in the collection grants instant iconic status.

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(Newsday/Bruce Gilbert/2004)

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And yes, since the Museum re-opened, there is now a motorbike on show… But it’s not a Harley. The question for us is, why not? Iconophilia suggests it’s the absolute stylelessness of this other V-twin, Phil Irving’s legendary 1949 Vincent Black Shadow, which is in keeping with the Eurocentric and Purist sensibility that has been a part of the MoMA experience ever since the 1930s.

Was it chosen because of the black-on-black colour scheme, or is it because Steve McQueen rode one? Or (scoop) was it because it was designed by an Australian? Up there with Fred Williams, Sid Nolan and a handful of other Australians in the MoMA collection, it was Phil Irving who went on to design the  Formula One engines used in the Repco-Brabhams which won the world championships of 1966 and 1967. When seen in the Philip Johnson Gallery, the explicit machine aesthetic of Irving’s Vincent is set against that other icon of post-war European design, the super-chic 1946 Cisitalia, the inspiration of the Italian maestro Pinin Farina (read the backstory). With the absolutely purist slipperiness of its form, this first supercar was the precursor to all the other aerodynamic European exotica of the following decades.

In their different ways, both these examples are arguably more “purist” than any of the rather clunky American “streamliners” since the 1930s, as seen here in downtown Dickson and in Dick Marquis’ shed on steamy Whidbey Island.

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So why is the Vincent in the MoMA, and not an Indian or a Harley – like Jon’s Dooce? It has a lot to do with the MoMA’s rejection of the 1930s American designers who saw styling as a marketing strategy, as opposed to MoMA’s commitment to the science of pure form. It’s just a coincidence that the Vincent is also a V-twin, like the Harleys @ Craft. Whereas V-twins have been around since WW1, in the years when Britain ruled the motorcycle world, the Vincent was simply the best. And it was also truly innovative – one of the first motorbikes to use the engine block as a part of the chassis – which is probably why it found its way into the MoMA collection – and why it has acquired the iconic status which follows. It epitomises the logical appeal of form following function, without embellishment or stylisation. Just as we are invited to admire the ultimate functionalism of the Bell Helicopter that hovers above the stairwell.

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By contrast, the Harley evokes a kind of sub-cultural rejection of mainstream sensibilities at almost every level. It’s pure style. The chopper’s iconic status as a post-Vietnam symbol of alienation was first made popular by Easy Rider (1969) and particularly in the popular imagination as an icon of the underworld (“Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead”) in Pulp Fiction (1994) – and now it has been institutionalised by its inclusion in Vietnam commemorative marches along Anzac Parade. But subculture has no place at the MoMA – so the Harley Davidson has to make do with its own Museum in Milwaukee.

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The way these examples have evolved around the original form of the Harley reflects the contemporary nexus between nostalgia and the consumer capacities of the Baby Boomer generation, and this historical conjunction has resulted in a new stage in the development of the Harley icon. The prosperity of the past decade has seen the Harley Davidson Company experience its own boom and bust. But if you’ve got deep pockets, you can still select from a myriad of variations off the showroom floor, and create your own unique version in a process called “factory customising”. Yet in technological terms, the Harley is an anachronism. Specialising in its own noisy and ecologically incorrect big V-twin motor, the formula is one of elaboration and variation rather than radical technological advance. Whereas the V-twin Ducati leads the way on the Grand Prix circuit, the Harley is more suited to the dragway. And even the stylisation of the 1998 Porsche designed V-Rod above (slinky replaces scratchy) owes more to Boulevard racing than the circuit. Although it is said to accelerate faster than you can imagine.

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All of this has resulted in a particular kind of conventionalised creativity. There are so many options available, with such a huge industry supplying specialist variants, the Harley phenomenon has turned consumerism into DIY design. And like the universal influence of New York Subway graffiti (its spread to Australia boosted by the 1984 publication Subway Art), the Harley phenomenon has become a cultural export with a huge global impact.  As with all forms of cultural imperialism, in the search for perfection, local variants like the Chopperworks bikes emerge to challenge the center, with their hand-fab details and tribal effects…

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In this exhibition we see a fascinating analogue of the parallel evolution of craft and design, plus the potential for individual expression on the part of the consumer/owner/maker. Where, you might ask, does creativity lie in this process? Is it the conception of all the bolt-together options, or the subtle modelling and painting of the parts that makes them unique? How do we measure innovation in this process? Is it how they look, or how they go? Or how they make their owners feel? So, is it craft, design, or a kind of outsider art? Here’s Ralph Smith, polishing his ninth Harley, complete with ostrich-skin saddle…

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In 1998 the Guggenheim Museum hosted its most popular (and lucrative) exhibition ever – The Art of the Motorcycle. Let’s hope it works for CraftACT?

4 comments ↓

#1 ampersand duck on 07.04.09 at 7:03 pm

This is such a great post. I can’t wait to see the show!

#2 Aussie blokes… « glass central canberra on 07.05.09 at 5:13 pm

[…] Nige has sent through some snaps of the opening of Custom Made at Craft ACT last Thursday and a link to Iconophilia’s coverage of the show, Hogs@Craft. […]

#3 David Broker on 07.14.09 at 10:43 am

this looks like a motorcycle fetish to me Nigel !

#4 Nigel on 07.14.09 at 6:21 pm

Oh David, how conservative is your concept of “fetish”?

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