January 6th, 2012

A friend sent me a photo of a bike with square wheels. It may sacrifice a little in the area of smoothness of ride, but its absurdity made me laugh. Just when you think you’ve seen the last art bike, another one comes along. We believe this bike hails from Marfa, Texas where Donald Judd reigns supreme and where right angles dot the landscape, walls, buildings, and psyche.

We take the wheel for granted, but it may be the most impressive invention humanity has ever created.

The wheel has been around a lot longer than the light bulb or wifi or the abacus or toaster waffles.  It dates back to about 4000 BC and all the while it has stayed true to its original form. Look at the wheels on ancient chariot carts – they are almost identical to those that move goods around in modern day Cartagena, Colombia. I spent a day photographing all kinds of wheels, stationary and in motion.  Life there essentially revolves around the wheel. Without them there would be no commerce or trade.  The basic human exchange of goods and communications is enabled by vehicles and their wheels. The same holds for most of the modern world.

Wheels of Cartagena from PUBLIC Bikes on Vimeo.

We acknowledge the ingenious internal combustion engine, but what would cars and trucks be without wheels? OK, airplanes don’t need wheels in flight, but many insist that a safe landing is an important part of their flight. The bike is really just two wheels made animate – though that doesn’t keep us from obsessing over elegant frame architecture or getting geeky about gears, weight, and all.  Wheels are everywhere – cranes, trains, pulleys, scooters, skateboards – even those gears we get geeky about.

In a place like Cartagena the diversity, character, and ubiquity of the wheel is extraordinary. You notice them more when they are not shrouded or incased by metal as they are often with cars.  It was easy to get carried away with an appreciation of the aesthetics as I walked around taking photos.  And the wheel as an object or symbol has been adored by artists as diverse as Marcel Duchamp and Ai WeiWei. And then someone rolled by in a wheelchair and I realized how dependent we are on the wheel for our basic needs of independence and survival.  The wheel is too cool to be square.