Ai Weiwei's striking sculpture Forever Bicycles didn't just pedal itself into town.
The work by the Chinese-born artist and dissident — composed of 1,254 stainless-steel bicycles from Shanghai's Forever Co. arranged into an eye-popping, nine-metre-tall design — has travelled the world.
The version on display at The Forks (just in time for Nuit Blanche celebrations Saturday night) arrived in pieces aboard four semi-trailer trucks from Austin, Texas, where it had been on display for just over two years.
The installation is site-specific, meaning it's altered to suit its environment with a different configuration and a varying number of bikes in each location.
Bringing the peripatetic work to Winnipeg was an involved process that required dealing with Canada Customs, input from local architects, and adhering to specific specifications from the artist's studio representatives in Berlin and London.
"It was quite a feat," says Clare MacKay, executive director of The Forks Foundation, with a laugh. "But it has been done before, which is great. We were lucky enough to make a connection with The Contemporary (gallery) in Austin and so got some of the 'Here's how we did it, here's some things you're going to need,' so we could make sure the right equipment was here."
Whether it's whimsical work such as Claes Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis or the reflective Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean) by Anish Kapoor in Chicago, public art can be a city's focal point and calling card, drawing tourists and locals alike.
"Public art is something that has always been important to The Forks, whether it's temporary or permanent," MacKay says, explaning how the sculpture came to its new home in CN Field, just behind the Inn at The Forks.
"Take things like Wall-to-Wall (Mural Festival) — we've just got a new mural under the underpass. And the idea that it changes constantly is really appealing to us because then there's something new to see here.
"Public art is a great economic driver; it also creates conversation and creates community," she says.
Forever Bicycles marks the first time The Forks Foundation has brought in a piece of such international stature from an artist considered one of the best working today. It's on loan for two years (with an option to extend to three); the cost of the loan and the assembly was borne entirely by private donor Michael Nesbitt.
The artwork's location, within view of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, is intentional, as it ties in with the thematic concerns of the artist. Weiwei is as much known for his for activism as he is for his photography, films and sculptural installations; in 2011, he was jailed for "economic crimes" by the Chinese government, of which he has been vocally critical.
Dan Page has helped assemble Forever Bicycles in cities across the globe. The London-based employee of Mtec — an international art installation company — and his partner have mounted the work several times, with the help of local crews.
However, though his experiences in Venice, London, Buenos Aires, Austin and Santiago, Chile, have made the process a bit more rote, the logistics of creating the towering structure are always challenging.
"It's physically quite demanding," he says. "You're standing on the bikes, getting everything to line up. You tend to bang your elbows and your knees. You have to stand on it to bolt everything together."
The bicycles are assembled into modules on the ground and then raised up in sections. It usually takes four to five days to complete, as long as weather doesn't jeopardize the process (standing on a towering metal structure during a lightning storm is not recommended). The sculpture — valued at 2.5 million euros (C$3.6 million) — has withstood hurricane-like conditions and an earthquake without incident, but visitors will not be allowed to climb on it.
Page, 46, says many installers are drawn to the gig because they're art lovers or worked in art galleries, or because they work in similar fields.
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Forever Bicycles just begs to be photographed, but eager selfie-takers might notice something called the "moiré effect" that happens when the overlapping pattern of the work meshes with the pattern on a camera's sensors.
If you notice odd stripes or patterns on your phone screen, try zooming out or shooting from a different angle; if you're using a DSLR camera, increase your depth of field.
Or just embrace the weirdness, which has a totally trippy 3D appeal.
"A lot of us at Mtec got into it because we're plumbers or carpenters, that kind of background," he says, adding that he doesn't come from the trades. "I was literally just strong. Years ago they needed help carrying something into a building... and I didn't drop it, so hey, another day's work! And 15 years later, I'm still here."
In that time, he's assembled — and disassembled — countless works all over the world.
"They all have their different challenges," he says. "This one, when we first done it, it was quite complicated. It was like, 'OK, go nuts,' and there was a box of bolts and bars... Lots of artworks turn up in a container and there's a picture of it and you have to build it. It's like a massive puzzle."
With Forever Bicycles, Weiwei, as with much of his work, is commenting on human rights, with the static bikes — a common means of transportation in China — locked in place, unable to move freely.
"People take different things from art, and that's the great thing," MacKay says. "We have four million (annual) visitors here. Some of them are going to look at it and say, 'Wow, that's a bunch of cool bikes,' and want to take a selfie with them. That's awesome.
"And there are people who are going to stop and read the signage and go 'Who is this Ai Weiwei guy?' and walk away and Google him to find out his story and why it's important. It's really about creating those conversations. And to bring something of international calibre here, because we deserve it."
The Forks Foundation, in collaboration with the CMHR, hopes to bring Weiwei to Winnipeg in the spring of next year to speak at the museum.