Michael O’Sullivan, curatorial coordinator, The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire

Motorcycles have always embodied danger, rebellion, freedom, speed and style ...

There’s a certain allure to motorcycles that’s impossible to deny. Two-wheelers boast sense of freedom, danger, rebelliousness and convenience that regular automotive transport can’t match. Design wise, there’s nothing quite like spying a gleaming souped-up hog in the wild, with its leather-clad rider breezing by like the road was made solely for them. This magic sits at the heart of The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire – the large-scale exhibition currently on display at QAGOMA until Monday April 26. We caught up with the exhibition’s curatorial coordinator Michael O’Sullivan to talk us through the nuts and bolts of this exhibition, which, by all reports, is a must-see collection for avowed rev-heads and curious pedestrians alike.

We’re always curious to know how an idea for a large-scale exhibition forms. Can you share any insight into what inspired the concept for The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire and how it came to be?
QAGOMA has developed a strong tradition of design focused exhibitions – from ‘Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future’ to ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ – that celebrate the intersection of design, art and popular culture. We know these exhibitions are very popular with our audiences, but finding the next opportunity can be challenging. The catalyst for this exhibition was a connection QAGOMA had with key members of the curatorial team behind the landmark Guggenheim exhibition from the late 1990’s, ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’, Prof. Charles Falco and Ultan Guilfoyle. With 2021 marking 150 years since the first steam powered motorcycle hit the cobblestoned streets of Paris, and given the revolution of electric engines reshaping motorcycles today, there seemed like no better time or place to create a contemporary motorcycle exhibition than at GOMA.

The motorcycle represents so much to many people – a symbol of rebellious spirit and freedom, a marvel of engineering, an adrenaline-pumping icon. How did you go about distilling the core essence of what motorcycle culture is and then set about conveying it via this exhibition?
Motorcycles have always embodied danger, rebellion, freedom, speed and style. These aren’t just traits exemplified by the biggest and most powerful “road hogs” – they are also there in the humblest of motorcycles, the Vespas and Honda Super Cubs. The essence is the thrill of riding, the complete sensory experience it creates and the motorcycling community you join by default when you jump on any bike. We deliberately acknowledge this in the exhibition with an incredibly diverse selection of makes and models. And, for those who have only ever experienced the thrill of the ride vicariously via films and popular culture, the exhibition showcases some of the most unforgettable cinema moments involving motorcycles – classic moments such as Steve McQueen jumping the barbed wire in The Great Escape (1963), and Audrey Hepburn wrestling control of her Vespa in Roman Holiday (1953).

The exhibition boasts 100 motorcycles of various designs – can you share an insight into the curatorial process behind the selection of the featured bikes and the exhibition’s key motifs and thematic elements?
We had countless discussions in the development of the exhibition about what would make the final cut. The challenge was to balance the number of rare, exotic and completely unique bikes, with examples of more common marques that audiences have a strong nostalgia for and would expect to see in any comprehensive telling of the motorcycle story. It also came down to what would be available to us and what people would be willing to lend. Fortunately, Australian collectors own some of the best and rarest machines in the world and they are typically very keen to share. We were constantly surprised, as were our US-based curators, by the discovery of pristine examples of some of the most coveted marques in our own backyard.

Safe to say some of these bikes are quite rare! What were some of the challenges inherent in finding and securing the use of these vehicles?
There are bikes in the show that are completely unique, singularly renowned and incredibly valuable like any great work of art. A notable example is the Burt Munro Indian Streamliner, made famous by the film The World’s Fastest Indian. To resolve the loan, we took all of the steps we would typically take to borrow any high-value artwork, including authenticating the work, undertaking provenance checks, having conservation standard crates made for shipping and commissioning high-quality photography. We then designed a display method for the object so it could be shown in the most optimal way, providing great visual access while ensuring its protection and security.

Of the collection, is there a motorcycle with a story that you found particularly interesting or that you think best encapsulates the majesty of two-wheel engineering?
A stand out machine and a high point in the exhibition is the 1994 Britten V1000. This is a superbike designed from the ground up by John Britten in New Zealand in the early nineties. It won Grand Prix and Superbike Championship races against the best factory bikes due to brilliant engineering and design that achieved a delicate balance of power and handling. It’s also an incredible looking bike, finished with an electric-blue and lipstick-pink colour scheme that really makes it stand out from the pack!

What do you hope visitors take away from the experience?
I would love to think that everyone leaves this exhibition with at least one favourite bike that they could imagine themselves riding away on. Perhaps it’s a motorcycle that evokes a fond memory, promises speed or an escape, or they’re impressed with its sense of style and beauty. I find that trying to narrow it down to my own top ten favourite bikes is almost impossible. Hopefully I’m not alone!

In addition to your role as curatorial coordinator for The Motorcycle, you’ve also worked with QAGOMA for more than a decade at the gallery’s design manager. Can you tell us what sort of work this entails?
I manage the graphic, exhibition and web/multimedia design teams and our workshop and art installation crews at QAGOMA. We are really lucky to have a big and well-resourced, in-house production team that allows us to realise the ambitions of our curators and the artists we work with. We love working on a large scale, and resolving the display of technically complex art installations that push the Gallery spaces to their limits and surprise and delight our audiences. The work we do is fantastically varied, it’s fast paced and very rewarding for anyone with a love of art and design.

Finally, if you could hop on a two-wheeler and head for the horizon, what bike would you want to be riding and what song would play as you rode off into the sunset?
So the answer to this question changes day to day. But right now my pick would be a 1938 Crocker V-twin. There were only about 70 of these bikes ever produced, each tailor-made for its owner. It’s a beautiful bike built for highway cruising and I would gladly hit the road on one of these listening to ‘Wide Open Road’ by legendary Australian band The Triffids.

You can cruise over to QAGOMA to view The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire until Monday April 26. 

Image: Joe Ruckli


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