MEMORY: there used to be a service station called The Jet in lower Sandy Bay. Run by one Vern Reed and his tribe of mechanic sons, he sold dirt bikes and was forever trying to get my dad to buy one for me. Vern had a voice gravelled-roughened by smoking and dressed like some 60′s racer in a beret and a pale leather jacket.
“You should get that boy on a bike in the bush” he proclaimed to my dad, who wanted me to surf, and said so. Vern Reed spoke of the dangers of sharks knowingly.
I did neither of course.
Of course it is.
The alteration of context throws everything into relief.
I would never attend this kind of event in my actual life. I have no interest in it. I have nothing against it but I have no interest. Do I?
Actually, that is possibly untrue; the jettison of assumption generally makes things easier to consume – let them be what they are, warts and all, take in the actual sight, watch it with fresh eyes.
Hah. Fresh eyes. Who has them? How ridiculous.
I don’t know a damn thing about motor cross. I have an idea that whoever indulges in it loves the very idea of motorbikes: loves Crusty Demons, loves a thrill, potential danger.
There is not all that much danger to be observed because really, in this scaled down and safer context the participants are not fanatical devotees of this sport of rubber and dirt, and for the most part seem a bit like people learning to walk too late in life. It’s a bugger, learning to do dangerous things when you really understand the potential for injury. All I could think of was my badly healed right ankle and how it limited me.
The surprise is that it’s funny, especially when the ineptness of one of the curators sprays mud all over the piss-taking commentator; and my cynical considerations are removed by laughter. As I ate an egg and bacon that I had to wrestle from cling wrap whilst having beer from a plastic cup, context could get stuffed. It can be ridiculous exactly at the same time as being hilarious, and the mud will get all over everything no matter what.
I hope it pisses with rain at the next one but I bet it doesn’t. Nature never does what you want it to do.
MEMORY: we are in Hanoi, trying to cross the road. The traffic, mostly motor bikes of all kinds streams by without any discernible control until we realise that there is a rhythm, just not one we know. With eyes front I walk into the flow of bikes and cross the road, looking ahead, not making eye contact. If I saw you I must avoid you. I keep walking. An accident , although so near, does not occur.
This is normal.
I cannot tell if I want the commentator to shut up or not.
He’s funny, but it’s shaping this thing too much for me; it’s not all comedy. There’s an element of serious fun here, hidden, though emergent. Something about the effort required for this kind of fun, this complex play that needs these elements, all dragged and dropped here, as authentic as it can be in this totally artificial version. If you add in some people who have a level of competency with the small motor bikes, things are different. The comic notions of watching people stumble and limp around the loop of dirt go, and something else emerges: that there’s quite a bit of skill involved in doing this with any degree of success. It’s a task with multiple components, balance, tactics, controlling the bike, controlling yourself, anticipating the track. Ruts get etched into the dirt very quickly. Are they a problem? I like them. They’re a hazard born of usage. You have to deal with what you have made; with what everyone has made.
I can see something else now, amid the smoke and the comedy.
The comedy. The commentator. I know this guy. He’s a prankster, the certified one who is allowed to behave in particular way. He heckles the mayor at art prizes, critiques festivals from the hustings and is a professional nuisance, not just tolerated but encouraged: he throws a good dollop of bedlam into proceedings around Hobart. He’s doing exactly what he does, but amplified, lengthened and cantankerous.
His wash of piss taking is a smoke screen over the dirt and the bikes.
I ignore him (it’s an effort, his bluster and parody is very engaging) and take in the view: All around this buzzing nest of combating mechanical insects (those helmets make people look like bugs) there is the most wonderful view of Hobart, of the river, the clustered houses, the landmarks.
I know best what this is NOT.
It is not a comment on masculinity.
MCR may have been made by male artists but there is nothing that is truly gendered in any kind of traditional way about riding very small motorbikes around a dirt track. During the course of this work, I’ve seen plenty of women ride the bikes, and they have been no better or worse at it than any of the men I have seen. To say it is men investigating a male pursuit is lazy, as a cursory Google reveals the existence of Women’s MX at a professional level. Not that anyone said anything more than “boys and their toys”, at least that I heard.
It’s not about class.
My first two second analysis (read: elitist put-down) was about class, because increasingly, I have a Marxist outlook. That’s my cross to bear: I make class readings of many things, but MCR is not an appropriation of an inherently working class activity; Motorbikes just cost too much to purchase and maintain. The appropriate gear costs heaps, the gaudy outfits and special helmets are worth a frigging mint.
I could claim this was a bogan activity, because bogans are wealthy now. God, do you not love that phrase “cashed-up bogan” ? In his charming and witty tome The Bogan Delusion, David Nichols suggested this phrase had implications of ‘how dare you get rich, you bloody oiks’ and I concur, but MX, whoever is doing it, is the pursuit of the wealthy, be they rich farmer’s kids who board or hard-working plumbers, but what the hell does it mean to claim something is bogan ? Perhaps the desire is that some sort of earthy authenticity rubs on with all the mud.
It is not an analogy for the art world.
MCR produces obvious winners and losers and none of the losers describe their losing as interesting, although snapping bits off the bike is pretty funny Sheer skill is rewarded above effort. I may be able to talk about these bikes and this activity quite well and it is possible for me to stand near someone who can ride them, and they may be able to give me pointers, but this is unlikely to allow me to win even one those short, mock races. More ever, my claim that not riding at all because I don’t want to play the game will not be seen as some kind of interesting, problematic stance, but nothing more than a lack of interest.
No, it is nothing like the art world at all.
So, what is it?
The most interesting thing in the end was Mr Blake, the commentator. He said a fair bit, and managed to say a fair bit about the work. He was an accident and an afterthought, it would seem, but he came to be, over the course of the weeks of MCR, the dominating factor.
He did not move and would call the riders of the motocross bikes to him for a discussion, and tease them with little mercy. He would ask the audience to count down and involved the spectators in the antics. He got very excited but still watched the AFL Grand Final. A slim distinction must be made though: MCR did not become about Mr Blake, it just allowed him be himself – you get this performer and this is what he does. It is his job, his shtick, his skill, his burden, his cross to bear and his place in the social fabric. If you ask a jester to do a job, he will do his job, which is to invert, mock and satirise, and that is what you get him for. He is supposed to tell everyone the emperor’s genitals are flapping in the breeze.
So you can’t complain, really, and I have no doubt that Marley Dawson and Chris Hanrahan rather enjoyed Mr Blake. I was in stitches at points, but it occurred to me that if MCR could be so totally swallowed and subverted by a rogue element, then perhaps there wasn’t that much there to begin with beyond the idea of putting something into a space where it usually isn’t and getting people who wouldn’t usually do it to have go. Which is fine. There is no secret or great comment, it’s just – well, it’s a small but perfectly formed motor cross track on top of a privately owned museum, with smoke machines that seem a bit futile in the wind and a soundtrack of odd grunge era JJJ hits accompanying the whole thing.
Actually, do you know, I think my single favourite moment, greater even than when that poor lass snapped off the mud guard of one of the small bikes with a violent crack, was when The Smiths got played as the soundtrack. That really was just wrong. I did grasp at an idea about masculinity then but it was just Morrisey, that crafty chap, tricking me. MCR is an exercise in creating an incongruity that you can play with, and part of that play is that as an artwork, MCR is wide and blank enough that you can read what you might wish to into it. Read anything into it: it’s an empty signifier.
If I have a favourite empty signifier, it’s vampires, because there is possibly no better metaphor for anything you don’t like than it being some sort of monster that takes your blood, but motor cross really isn’t a bad one: here, in a track that goes nowhere on expensive machines that are not really for anything beyond going around the track to nowhere, we can watch a mockery of competition undertaken by people who don’t really know how to do it.
Luckily, we have a distraction to make it funny rather than futile and the fun can be found which is fortunate because without that, it might have been futile.
Andrew Harper, 2011