Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Speed, Motorcycles and the Archive

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Speed, Motorcycles and the Archive

Article excerpt

I'VE BEEN THROUGH THE DESERT on a chrome-encrusted motorcycle that bore an odd resemblance to Elvis Presley and had a name almost as fat as the bike itself: the Harley Heritage Softail Classic. The desert was just outside Las Vegas, and the motorcycle was a rental, lined up as part of a trip I took with my husband to the Las Vegas Guggenheim to see a show that we had wanted to see for years: The Art of the Motorcycle, an exhibit of some of the world's most beautiful motorcycles (see Figure 10).

Oh, you didn't know that there was a Guggenheim in Las Vegas? You didn't know that motorcycles belong in art galleries? Well, as it happens, the Guggenheim isn't there anymore, and there is a good possibility that the motorcycles shouldn't have been in the gallery anyhow. First, the closure of the Guggenheim: there were two Guggenheim galleries opened in Las Vegas's Venetian Hotel initially, the large gallery which held The Art of the Motorcycle and the smaller Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. The mandate of the larger gallery was to hold exhibits drawn from popular culture, while the Hermitage Museum would hold more traditional shows, like "Faberge Treasures from the Kremlin" or "A Century of Painting from Renoir to Rothko." Considering the location of these galleries, it seems strange indeed to think which of the two galleries survived the ruthless gaze of the Las Vegas cultural consumer.

Both galleries seemed to announce the archive of the new millennium as a shopping mall of magnificent proportions, always cool and dark in the desert heat, always pandemonium in the desert silence, always Europe or somewhere else in the middle of the great American desert. There could be no origins in this archive, only a series of consumer choices. The entrance to the Art of the Motorcycle installation sat for fifteen months deep within an incomprehensibly huge hotel beyond endless interior acres of shops, slots and craps. One could imagine Ozymandias installed in the ticket booth at the door, but of course, Elvis is King of Kings in this desert, and so maybe the display of gleaming motorcycles in this archive was plausible, recording, as it did, a certain history but also certain addictions and drives. This archival paradox was erected in the very town where the oddly vital mannequin Roy was dragged by his throat in the teeth of a beast from his collection of rare tigers to a future where, perhaps, we will all be consumed by the archive.

In a sense, my journey into the heart of brightness which is Las Vegas can be retraced as a journey into the very heart of the archive itself, or into what Derrida calls "the desire and the disorder of the archive" (Archive Fever 81). Through this travel diary of my trip to Las Vegas, I want to convince you that the archive is not what it once was, or once was meant to be. The archive historically has been a fixing of origins, among other things, an attempt to install history inside collections of objects and simultaneously to install collections of objects inside history. The objects in the archive begin to radiate sacred meanings, and the archive becomes a cultural vestry--or at least, this is how it seems when the objects are texts or paintings or other artifacts that signal cultural exclusion even as the patron moves through them. But motorcycles? In Las Vegas? How is this archive to be entered or understood?

This returns me to the question of whether motorcycles should be in an art gallery at all. In his recent essay "Art Will Eat Itself," Mark Kingwell takes the reactionary position on this question and argues that the hubristic appeal of finding oneself in the gallery overwhelms aesthetic discernment; or, in other words, being seen in the gallery is more important than what is being seen in the gallery: "We engage in a form of second-order consumption all too typical of the postmodern condition, consuming our own cultivation as a by-product of some first-order experience--such as beauty--understood to be insufficient by itself" (82). …

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