Q&A: Motorcycles as art with Falco and Guilfoyle

We talk to the curators of a ground-breaking exhibition of motorcycles – past, present and future – that’s coming in Brisbane this year.

How often do you see motorcycles in an art gallery? Not very often, but when you want to put on an exhibition that celebrates the motorcycle as a design object, you go straight to two guys: Chares M. Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle.

Falco and Guilfoyle are the curators of ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ – an exhibition that will open exclusively at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) this November. With more than 100 motorcycles on show, this will be a must-see for motorcyclists, of course, but Falco and Guilfoyle are aiming to attract those without a wired-in love for bikes, too. How often do you see motorcycles in an art gallery? Not very often, but when you want to put on an exhibition that celebrates the motorcycle as a design object, you go straight to two guys: Chares M. Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle.

While the exhibition will have echoes of ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’, the wildly successful exhibition curated by Falco and Guilfoyle that attracted more than 2 million visitors in the USA and Europe, it will be very different.

‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ will not only look back to the origins of the motorcycle, but also forward, showing where motorcycling is heading – and where it must head – to be a viable transport option for the future.

A lot of the motorcycles selected for display come from Australian collections and were chosen because they not only represent the motorcycle as a design object, but also because they have a significant local history.

Ahead of the exhibition, Falco and Guilfoyle, who are keen riders themselves, tell how it came about and what you can expect to see at GOMA this November.

Practical Motoring: Of the 100+ motorcycles that will be exhibited in ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’, will most of them be production models, or will there be oneoffs and concepts, too?

Ultan Guilfoyle: I would say it’s going to be 50:50 between production motorcycles and one-offs. Concept models has a specific meaning in automotive design. We’re not exploring that area, but we are exploring oneoffs – custom bikes – where someone takes a production bike and makes it into something else. Like a chopper, classically, or, in the modern era, where people take an engine and build an entirely new motorcycle around it.

PM: Can you reveal any custom bikes that are confirmed for the exhibition?

UG: The Craig Rodsmith bike. It’s called the ‘Corps Léger’ – a French phrase meaning ‘Light Body’. The Fuller Moto ‘2029’ is another. Max Hazan is a famous customiser and we’ll also have one of his bikes in the show.

PM: Are the major motorcycle brands represented and is there any bias, to American makes for example, in the machines that’ll be on display?

Charles Falco: There will be all the usual suspects – of brands of motorcycles – you will see, but picked for specific reasons, not because of their brand. There’s no bias toward American makes. However, Australia was a big recipient of American motorcycles. The Harley- Davidsons and Indians that we have in the exhibition have Australian stories – they won speedway races in Australia, they did new, and they’ve had lives in Australia – they’ve raced, they’ve held speed records and so on. They’re part of the fabric of Australian automotive history. And so, for us as curators, we obviously wanted to embrace that and tell that story.

PM: How much of ‘The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire’ was inspired by ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’ at the Guggenheim Museum? Also, why bring this exhibition to Brisbane and why now?

UG: With great foresight and brilliant perception, the Director and Deputy Director at QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art), Chris Saines and Simon Elliott, asked us would we re-imagine The Art of the Motorcycle, the Guggenheim exhibition, for Australia. And for the 21st Century – looking forward – instead of what we did at the Guggenheim in 1998, which was simply to look back.

They have 2020 vision. They’re thinking ahead. They’re thinking to big issues of technology, that pivotal moment between the move from internal combustion to electricity.

We show that in the first motorcycle in the exhibition, the Michaux-Perreaux, which was a steam motorcycle. That was a pivotal moment between steam, which was an extraordinary technology that drove the Industrial Revolution, but was dead by the end of the 19th Century when internal combustion took over. We’re showing those pivotal technological moments and that’s something we never did with The Art of the Motorcycle.

PM: In what other ways will this upcoming exhibition differ from ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’?

CF: We’re not just taking The Art of the Motorcycle and adding 20 years of more recent motorcycles to it – it’s starting from scratch. There will be some motorcycles that are the same as The Art of the Motorcycle, because they’re beautiful old machines, but it is not – in any sense – an update of The Art of the Motorcycle.

PM: Since an exhibition of this type was first held more than 20 years ago, electric motorcycles have become much more prominent. Was the representation of electric bikes a particular focus this time around?

UG: Yes, definitely. We are at a pivotal moment in changing automotive technology, from internal combustion to hybrids and electricity. And we reflect that in the exhibition.

PM: What were the challenges in curating The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire? Were they any different from what you had to deal with when organising The Art of the Motorcycle?

CF: In general, we had the same difficulties. We select the machines that we want in the exhibition, independent of any other consideration, then we have to go and FIND those machines. Sometimes it’s very difficult – you have to work hard to find those machines. In general, it’s the same process as we had twenty years ago, but in some ways, it’s a little bit easier. 

Twenty years ago, the idea of an art museum holding a motorcycle exhibition was unheard of. The Art of the Motorcycle was amazingly influential. Most motorcyclists have heard of it, so, when Ultan and I approach someone now, and say ‘We’re doing something for QAGOMA in Brisbane, we curated The Art of the Motorcycle,’ it’s a big foot in the door.

In some ways, it’s easier but it doesn’t ever feel easy!

PM: I see a couple of Australian motorcycles in the preview material. How many other motorcycles in the exhibition have been sourced from Australian owners?

UG: I’d say it’s up to 50 per cent almost, but it’s also irrelevant. There is an Australian accent to this show. We deliberately did that, because we knew that, for example, two of the best collections of early American motorcycles are held in Australia. And they’re “Australian” bikes. They were imported to Australia new, and they’ve had lives in Australia – they’ve raced, they’ve held speed records and so on. They’re part of the fabric of Australian automotive history. And so, for us as curators, we obviously wanted to embrace that and tell that story.

CF: Australia was also a big consumer of British motorcycles before World War II, so finding a pre-War Triumph, there’s no reason for us to look elsewhere – we can find that in Australia. But some motorcycles, like French machines and Swiss machines, have to come from overseas because they just don’t exist in this country.

UG: One of the greatest motorcycles of all time is the Britten. It was a world-beating racing motorcycle, but it also happens to be a thing of extraordinary beauty and the colour scheme is lipstick pink and powder blue – who would have thought it! One of the first things Charles and I decided we wanted when we started – what’s the first bike we’re going to put in – was a Britten. We were able to go to John’s widow, Kristeen Britten, who we knew very well, and ask for hers. That was committed to an exhibition that runs concurrently with ours, but we got another one from New Zealand.

PM: Where there any surprises in the motorcycles that were sourced locally, or bikes you were particularly impressed with?

CF: The collections of David Reidie and Peter Arundel, which were Harleys and Indians. We shouldn’t say we were surprised – we were aware ahead of time – but it’s amazing that the best collections of those two brands of early racing motorcycles are by collectors in Australia.

UG: We made a special trip here to go and meet with David Reidie and see his collection of Harleys and Crockers in Melbourne. And we were both completely thrilled, because we saw profoundly important motorcycles that have a deep Australian history. Then, we drove up to Mansfield and saw Peter’s collection of Indians and it was the same thing – extraordinary motorcycles with extraordinary Australian history.

PM: Apart from the bikes themselves, what related material and other attractions will be part of the exhibition?

CF: For the catalogue, we will have ancillary material – maybe a period photograph of somebody racing a bike on a beach or the land speed record attempt. But in the exhibition itself, it’s only about the motorcycles.

UG: Related to that, the gallery has a quite famous cinema programme, so we’re creating a cinematheque of motorcycles. We’re working with Robert Hughes here in GOMA to curate that. And we’re very excited to get involved with their educational side. The education programme here (at QAGOMA) is second to none, worldwide. To engage kids in the act of design and appreciation for designed objects and industrial design is a great opportunity, so we’re excited about that, too.

PM: This exhibition will obviously appeal to motorcycle enthusiasts. But what would you say to inspire people with no particular interest in motorcycles to get them to attend this exhibition?

CF: What we’re trying to do is put ourselves in the picture of the young mother with children, who has a Saturday free to do something. Or somebody who, maybe their Dad or grandfather had a motorcycle, but they’ve never had a motorcycle in their life. We’re creating an exhibition to show those people what motorcycle design is, how motorcycles are design objects, just like a fine pen or a fine watch. A motorcycle has social aspects to it, though, which sometimes clouds people’s way of looking at them. This exhibition will, hopefully, put those other aspects out of people’s minds and they will look at motorcycles in a different way – they’ll see them as beautiful objects by themselves. I’m sure you will hear people coming out of the exhibition say, ‘I had no idea’. Hardcore motorcyclists and people who’ve never seen a motorcycle before – both are going to say, ‘I had no idea’. That’s our task. And we think we’re up to it.

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Phil Suriano

Phil Suriano