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Get your motor running: QAGOMA revved up for new exhibition


The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art is revving up for its first major exhibition since reopening to the public in August, with The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire, which opens at the gallery on Saturday.

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The world-exclusive exhibition will feature more than 100 motorcycles from the past 150 years, including some of the earliest examples of steam-powered bikes through to vehicles from the present day, drawn from private and public collections across the globe.

QAGOMA’s design manager and coordinating curator of the exhibition, Michael O’Sullivan, said planning for the exhibition started two years ago and was announced early this year

“We went public at the start of 2020 with a launch for the exhibition, which was really only a couple of weeks before the world changed quite dramatically with COVID and then we really sort of hunkered down from there,” O’Sullivan told InQueensland.

“We didn’t have our winter programs that we had initially thought we would have but we’re really looking forward now to relaunching the building and reopening all of our spaces.

“It’s really exciting for us to be able to welcome audiences back into the building in the fullest way possible with a fantastic summer exhibition or about motorcycles.”

O’Sullivan believed many people would be surprised to learn how far back the history of motorcycles stretched and how long they had played a part in local culture.

A 1929 Majestic. (Photo: Haas Moto Galleries, Grant Schwingle)

“We uncovered information that the first motorcycle was demonstrated in Brisbane in 1896,” he said.

“There is quite a long and extensive history of motorcycle even locally and the exhibition features what we think is one of the first Australian-designed and built motorcycles that was built in Auchenflower in Brisbane in 1906, by an inventor named David Spencer.

“So when we were playing the exhibition, we found this great, really early example that was essentially built in our own back yard.”

O’Sullivan said there would be makes and marks of motorcycles on display from all corners of the globe.

“We have quite a portion of the exhibition coming from lenders in the United States and then also some really big private collections and public museums devoted to motorcycles in America that we’re borrowing from. One in particular, the Haas Moto Museum in Texas, is lending us several motorcycles, historical and contemporary from a huge collection there.

“We’re also borrowing from New Zealand from Sweden – we have a fantastic new electric bike called a Cake from Sweden and we probably would have had even more lenders out of the UK in Europe, but COVID tempered our ambition around international loans.

“I guess the upside of that is that we’ve tapped into a really fantastic and strong vein of Australian collecting and we’ve realised how rich and world-class Australian collections are certainly drawn heavily from Australian collectors. as well.”

Although an exhibition centred around motorcycles might seem like a step outside QAGOMA’s comfort zone, O’Sullivan said it was a logical progression from other design-oriented programming the gallery had hosted in the past.

“It was definitely inspired by looking back and remembering that there was a landmark exhibition of the late ’90s at the Guggenheim Museum in New York called The Art of the Motorcycle.

“QAGOMA has quite a history of doing design exhibitions – we’ve done some incredible fashion exhibitions with Valentino and and Japanese fashion, and a couple of years back we did the Marvel exhibition.

“That exhibition really focused on the whole Marvel phenomenon and the design and creativity behind that whole machine, so motorcycles in a way feels like a bit of a natural extension of that kind of popular culture, design, architecture and passion for the subject matter that we like to consider in our exhibitions.”

Some of the other highlights of the exhibition include a 1871 Perreaux, the first steam-powered velocipede and oldest-known motorcycle in the world; a 1951 Vincent Black Lightning, which set an Australian land-speed record in its day and more recently a world record for the highest price paid at auction for a motorcycle; and symbols of speed from a 1930s Triumph Speed Twin to a 1970s Ducati 750 Super Sport to the 1990s Britten V1000.

A Vincent 998cc 1951 Black Lightning. (Photo: © Bonhams Auctioneers)

“It includes the earliest 19th-century steam-powered motorcycle, right through to electric motorcycles and exciting design propositions for the future,” QAGOMA director Chris Saines said.

“Over its 150-year history, the motorcycle has undergone extraordinary reinvention, from steam power to petrol-fuelled internal combustion engines to battery, and from humble backyard creations to custom-made, high-tech chrome speed machines.

“More than just a means of transport, the motorcycle is a design object, with forms and styles that reflect innumerable cultural and societal influences. We look forward to presenting this comprehensive survey of a universal machine designed to inspire freedom and escape through affordable mobility.

“At this turning point in the way the world thinks about powered transport, The Motorcycle will be a timely celebration of exquisite design and a look at what the future holds.”

Saines said the exhibition would have broad appeal and wasn’t only aimed at those with a need for speed.

“The exhibition will include interactive experiences for visitors, and appeal not only to bike and motorsport enthusiasts but to anyone curious about social history, popular culture, design and technology,” he said.

O’Sullivan agreed and said he hoped the exhibition would further expand QAGOMA’s audience.

“We certainly found that with shows like Marvel, we were able to bring our conventional or traditional audience along with us, because we were able to relate that subject matter to the artistry and the creativity and the discipline involved in creating and designing,” he said.

“I think the same thing goes for motorcycles, there’s this fantastic alignment that you see over that 150-year history of motorcycles with popular culture.”

The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire opens at QAGOMA on Saturday and runs until April 20, 2021. Visit QAGOMA’s website for more information on the program or to purchase tickets. 

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