Portland, a place where bicycles go high art

Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland, Oregon, is one American city where popular culture and bicycling are intertwined. In the summer of 2013, however, the cultural style of the city’s fixation on bicycles is going high art.

Leading the transformation is the Portland Art Museum, which (as in other cities around the world) is the place where high art is displayed and the cultural aspirations of its leading citizens are expressed. On June 8, the same day as the city’s annual Grand Floral Parade, the museum opened a new exhibit entitled “Cyclopedia: Iconic Bicycle Design.”

It is the third entry in the museum’s design-oriented exhibition series (last year’s exhibit was “The Allure of the Automobile”) and will continue for three months, closing on September 8.

The exhibit features 40 bicycles chosen by Vienna-based designed, Michael Embacher, from his collection of some 200 distinctive bicycles. Embacher opened the exhibition by giving a public lecture to some 300 people in the museum’s Whitsell Auditorium.

In softly accented tones, he acknowledged his love of cycling for pleasure and personal transportation. He then explained his professional interest in bicycle design. Bicycles are simple machines, little more than a frame with two wheels in tandem and a mechanism that enables cyclists to convert their bodily power into forward motion.

Despite their simplicity, bicycles have inspired designers for more than a century. The result is a continuing stream of amazing machines, some of them pioneering new designs and techniques that have contributed to the design of bicycles in the current main stream.

A decade ago, Embacher began to collect distinctive examples of bicycle design, some because of their beauty and others because of innovative design features. Although all of the bicycles in his collection can be ridden, some of these machines have only limited practical value.

The Mercian ‘Custom’ “can only travel along mainly straight lines as, due to the short wheel base, the front tyre collides with the pedals when cornering.” The Wilhelmina Plast Itera, designed in 1984, is described as “the most bizarre bicycle ever constructed…[A]lmost all of the components were made from plastic—resulting in a bicycle that warped in hot summer weather and compromised braking.”

The exhibition in Portland, which Embacher himself designed, features a gracefully curved metal track mounted on the ceiling of the exhibition hall. The bicycles are suspended from this track and move gently in the room’s air currents. People at the exhibition can view these bicycles from all sides and examine their components as closely as they see fit.

Immediately following Embacher’s lecture, the room was crowded with patrons. I’ll return for more leisurely viewing and photo shots of the bicycles that interest me the most.

The museum and sponsors of the Embacher collection have planned an entire summer of events that will “celebrate all things bicycle.” The lectures and talks are especially interesting to me. These topics are on the schedule: CycloFemme: Women on Bicycles, Past, Present, Future; Bikenomics and Urban Policy: A Local and National Perspective; and Made in Portland: Design for 21st Century Urban Cycling.”

“Summer Joyrides” will be “leisurely bike field trips” exploring sites related to three themes: Art for the Millions: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA in Portland; Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet; and America’s Bicycle Capital: A Tour of Portland’s Many Bike Cultures.”

Other events on the schedule include “a family cargo bike race and obstacle course,” free admission on fourth Fridays, with opportunities to buy “snacks from some of Portland’s finest pedal-powered food carts,” and weekly exhibitions at the museum of “extraordinary bikes from our community.”

There will be a progressive pedal party featuring bicycles, beer, and ice cream, a week-long “bicycle big top and rat trap circus,” and a public viewing of Jacques Tati’s film “Jour de Fête” atop the parking structure of the Hotel deluxe, one of the sponsors of the exhibition. I hope to describe some of these events as the summer unfolds.

I plan to focus other blogs this season on selected events from the regular summer calendar, such as the Providence Bridge Pedal, and on elements in Portland’s bicycle-related artisan industry. Both the city and bicycle advocacy groups are projecting plans to redesign city streets and bicycle-specific features. Here, my opinions are strong, many of them contrarian, and I intend to discuss what makes for safe and useful cycling in urban areas.

Disparate as these essays will be, they are bound together by a broader theme: “The Impact of Bicycles on Culture and Lifestyle.” This summer’s activities in Portland confirm an idea that Embacher displayed on a screen that formed the curtain wall of Whitsell Auditorium during his presentation, an idea with which I agree:

“A developed country is not necessarily a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich ride bicycles.”

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