"We are going to kick them in the teeth right when they walk through the door."
Sounds like Glen Campbell, vice president of the Wonders Series, is preparing for a rumble at the "Art of the Motorcycle" show, on display at The Pyramid through October 30th. Actually, he's talking about the striking design of the exhibition, which features some 100 motorcycles from around the world, from a steam-powered 1884 Copeland to a Viking-inspired 2004 Honda Rune.
"It's an avant-garde art exhibit, the kind of thing you might see in San Francisco or New York, but you've never seen this in Memphis before. Motorcycles are like sculptures in steel, rubber, and chrome, and we've displayed them like that," says Campbell.
But a Wonders show devoted to motorcycles?
Well, it worked before. "Art of the Motorcycle" was originally produced in 1998 by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, displaying more than 100 motorcycles from around the world. Considered a groundbreaking show for an art museum, it set new attendance records for the Guggenheim and then traveled to Chicago, Bilbao, Spain, and Las Vegas.
Memphis was going to be part of that exhibition tour, but because of scheduling problems, the show would have opened here in the winter --not a good time to host it, particularly when many visitors might ride in on two wheels.
But the staff at Wonders remained in touch with the Guggenheim Foundation. "Eventually we worked out a deal where we would essentially reconstitute the show," Campbell says. "It would follow the same guidelines, the same curatorial intent, and the same concepts."
The Memphis show, however, doesn't include the same motorcycles. In fact, only five of the bikes from the original show are in this exhibit. When the Guggenheim exhibition ended, those bikes were returned to their owners. Wonders borrowed this exhibit's bikes from collectors and museums throughout the United States and Canada.
The collection embraces the complete history of motorcycles, ranging from the Copeland steamer with a top speed of 12 mph ("Can you imagine riding something while sitting on a hot boiler about to explode?" asks Campbell) to a 1991 Suzuki Hayabusa that can take riders to a pulse-pounding 193 mph. In between, there are motorcycles from France (an 1897 Leon Bollée), the United Kingdom (a 1905 Royal Riley with a wicker sidecar, a 1929 Excelsior Super X, and a 1929 Scott Super Squirrel once owned by Steve McQueen), Italy (a 1927 Moto Guzzi and a 1956 Aermacchi Chimera), Germany (a 1942 KS-750 complete with machine gun mounted on the sidecar), Spain (a 1972 Bultaco 250 dirt bike), and even New Zealand (a 1994 Britten V1000 that had a top speed of 186 mph).
Memphis is represented by two bikes owned by Elvis Presley -- a 1965 Honda Dream and a striking maroon-and-white 1957 Harley-Davidson. Elvis later sold the Harley to a friend, who held onto it all these years. One of the Wonders docents was overheard telling a group of visitors, "And a while back, he sold it to Graceland for $300,000." Wonders won't discuss the costs of some of these machines, but you get the idea.
Campbell understands that not everyone is fascinated by the roar of a mighty V-twin motorcycle -- even one owned by the King of Rock-and-Roll:
"But I think this show will appeal to a lot of people. After all, we've had visitors who didn't know anything about ancient China or the Medicis but almost universally loved the exhibits. The way we do it, the way we explain it, makes it work for the visitor who may not have a background in that particular subject."
The motorcycles are arranged chronologically, each one mounted on a wooden or metal platform and illuminated by spotlights. An acoustiguide narrated by Tonight show host (and avid motorcyclist) Jay Leno tells the story behind each bike. It's too bad, though, that "Do Not Touch" signs are mounted on each platform, because it's tempting to hop aboard. What would it be like, one wonders, to hurtle down the road at 100 mph on a 1914 Cyclone -- a ride made all the more thrilling since that machine, designed for track racing, didn't have any brakes.
A red ribbonlike roadway ("sort of our version of the yellow brick road," explains Campbell) twists through the exhibition. Along the way, text panels set each grouping of bikes within their historical context, and huge blowups of images from such classic films as The Wild One, The Matrix, and Easy Rider show the motorcycle's role in popular culture.
The star-spangled "Captain America" chopper from Easy Rider is here -- sort of. The original, considered one of the most famous motorcycles of all time, mysteriously disappeared before the 1969 film was released. But an accurate reproduction is on display, set off from the rest of the bikes by a mesh curtain -- the motorcycle world's version of the Mona Lisa.
Helping Wonders chief curator Stevel Masler acquire all the bikes were Ed Youngblood, who served 19 years as president and CEO of the American Motorcylist Association, and Pete Gagan, president of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.
Gagan brought five machines from his own collection to Memphis. He participated in the original Guggenheim show and is enthusiastic about the Memphis version. "I think this is a wonderful exhibition," he says. "The architects [Memphis' Hnedak Bobo Group] have done a fabulous job laying it out, and the Wonders people have been great. This is the first time a show like this has appeared in the South, and there's a lot of motorcycle enthusiasts down here who will want to see it." •