PsychoGeography #63: Marcel's missing wheel

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The Independent Online

Ralph likes to believe that Marcel Duchamp's celebrated bicycle wheel sculpture ended up in Barcelona.

Ralph likes to believe that Marcel Duchamp's celebrated bicycle wheel sculpture ended up in Barcelona. He took this photograph during his recent stay in that noble city, and in his own inimitable way has constructed an itinerary to fit the objet trouvé.

It goes like this: Duchamp leaves Paris in 1913 bound for New York and the Armory Show organised by the avant-garde collector Walter Arensberg. This is to be his grand entrance on the world stage of shock - but he has left behind the bike wheel. Within hours it's pinched by the concierge (because that's what pre-WW1 concierges do), and bolted together with the relevant hot gears to become, once more, a bicycle. Voila! The former artwork is purchased by Pastor Goudoux, a dubious and peripatetic cleric, who a few days later is wobbling south on the interminable, dusty, tree-lined roads of central France. Goudoux stops for a month or so in Perpignan, where he bandies doctrine with that notorious pederast, the Bishop of Perigord. In time the two argue over the meaning of Paul's revelation on the Appian Way, the Bishop advancing the contentious view that Jesus was really urging his disciple to kick back and take a couple of weeks of "me time" in the fleshpots of Rome. Goudoux, disenchanted, rides on, eventually crosses the Pyrenees, and then wobbles down to Barcelona where he meets with a nasty - and probably fatal - accident. All that is left is the bicycle wheel. Three thousand miles away Duchamp succumbs to a massive fit of gnomic giggles. He knows nothing of the fate of the bicycle wheel - it is a pure coincidence.

What can we see about this absurd extrapolation? Only this: that anyone who knows the first thing about bicycles - let alone avant-garde sculpture - could tell you that the wheel in the picture is of a near-contemporary vintage, hardly rusted enough to be a Tinguely, let alone a Duchamp.

Granted, only cyclists can be moved to tears by the D-lock dangling on a park fence; the motorist powers on past, her attention gripped by radio reports of fraudulent elections half a world away; while the pedestrian has his head down and his feet lifted high, as he carefully negotiates the shit-free squares on the board. But the cyclist is gripped: "Oh how mournful are these steely charms, left to dangle on the city's faithless wrist!" The abandoned locks are bad enough, but there are also the truncated frames of once proud vehicles, stripped of their component parts. Need one mention the wheels? To come back to where you left your bike, perhaps having spent an evening reciting Mayakovski poems in a nearby hostelry with a small group of like-minded souls, and find that all that remains is a solitary wheel, is a discombobulating - as well as infuriating - experience.

Should you use the solo wheel as a unicycle and wobble home comforted by the thought that the thicko who stole the rest of the bike is attempting to ride it, forks ploughing the Tarmac? Or should you simply accept the situation with a fatalistic, Gallic shrug and vow to increase security measures?

My friend Dr Lorraine Gamman of Central Saint Martins is a leading light of the Design Against Crime initiative, which aims to do exactly as its name suggests: create everyday objects - handbags, mobile phones, etc - which have in-built security properties. Some of these things verge on the extreme; she told me recently about a parka that has all the capabilities - visor, Kevlar padding, Mace spray - of a modern suit of armour. I happen to know that Lorraine herself solves the bike security problem by riding a foldaway through town and then hefting it into the lecture theatre.

I myself opt for slapping on a duff coat of Humbrol in the hope that thieves are so aesthetically repelled by the bicycle that they won't bother to nick it. It's worked - so far. However, Ralph's flight of fancy suggests to me a better approach. Why not abandon the bicycle as a form of transport altogether and instead exhibit it? This may not have the virtue of originality, but then so little does nowadays, wouldn't you agree?