In 2011, Ai Weiwei unveiled a spindly installation made of 1,200 bikes at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The sculpture struck some as a nonsensical lark–at the time, it was criticized as wasteful–but like most of the Chinese dissident’s art, the story was hidden within the materials. Inscribed in script on the downtube of each bike was “Forever,” a 70-year-old Chinese bike brand that makes the most common bike in China. Forever is a kind of “house brand,” a symbol of utility in a country that manufactures most of the high-end bikes sold in Western countries. Ai’s installation wasn’t a mechanical folly–it was a commentary on the power of China’s labor class.
This winter, Ai built a second Forever sculpture as part of an expansive solo show at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, Italy. Stacked takes its name from the orientation of 760 Forever frames, which have been turned lengthwise this time around. Each bike is connected to the next through either the seat tube or the bottom bracket, creating identical rows of mass-manufactured steel tubing. Ai treats bikes as building blocks, each a vital cog in a perpetual-motion machine. “[Stacked] represents the lives of millions of Chinese citizens,” explain the Galleria’s curators. “What’s more, with its chain and sprocket mechanism, it somehow depicts the matrix of the labour force: the people.”
Stacked is–conceptually speaking–close to several other classic Ai works on view at the Galleria. There’s Rebar 49, which, with its three identical pieces of rebar seems like a formal study a la Richard Serra. In fact, Ai pulled the rebar from the rubble of a civic building after the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the match that ignited his conflict with the Chinese government. There’s also Brain Inflation, a large-format print of his MRI showing the brain hemorrhage he suffered when he was tortured by Chengdu police in 2009. The beauty of Ai’s work is that he’s able to make such compelling work that is so utterly simple. Sure, a bike is a bike and rebar is rebar, yet in Ai’s hands, they’re more than the sum of their parts.
Stacked will run as part of Mostre in Corso until February 16.