The Ai Weiwei Cycle: The Artist Installs 3,000+ Bikes

For Ai Weiwei, 2013 marks a rebirth of sorts. From tripling up on installations at this summer’s Venice Biennale to launching a career in punk music, the Chinese artist was prodigious in his output–and not all of it, nor the media attention around it, was of the dissident kind.

Yet the work he unleashed onto the art world from his cloistered Beijing compound this year revisits the themes that have preoccupied him since his 2011 arrest and detainment. Familiar motifs reappear, in some cases slightly altered, in others lifted almost wholesale. See Ai’s frequent use of bicycle frames, which he transforms into a stackable building material that turns gallery halls into jungle gyms. “Forever Bicycles” is the epitome of this process, its title perhaps a gimme for art critics.

Since 2011, Ai has reprised the installation in one version or another from Taiwan to Italy. The latest iteration appeared in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square last week, just in time for the city’s annual Nuit Blanche festival.

The work tends to increase in dimension with every installation. Here, it reaches its largest scale to date. Exactly 3,144 bikes were stacked and woven together in a looping structure 100 feet long and 30 feet wide, forming a giant metallic screen directly in front of Old City Hall. Flashing lights fixed on the bikes change color in a dynamic light show that will play every night in the square through the end of the month.

The setting proves ideal. Ai’s bicycles–manufactured by Yong Jiu, China’s most popular bike brand, whose name translates to “forever”–shine in the downtown Toronto context. When enclosed in galleries, the installations awe in size and little else, and can’t help but feel cramped. Here, “Forever Bicycles” is allowed to breath and take on near infrastructural dimensions. Ride on.SM