Ai Weiwei’s enormous Nuit Blanche sculpture, Forever Bicycles, quickly became a part of Toronto’s public landscape while it stood outside City Hall. And then,like that…it was gone. We watched it disappear.
Monday, Oct. 28, 7:00 a.m. Twenty workers gathered behind a fenced-in area surrounding Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles sculpture to take in the commanding spectacle for the last time. Lit from beneath, the 3,144 bikes appeared to be in motion. Joe Sellors, the production supervisor who has been in email contact with Weiwei throughout the project, briefed the crew on the five-day deconstruction they planned to undertake (a third of the time it took to put the thing up). Lining the fence were massive wooden crates, 40 of which would be carted away after the bicycles were packed up. One crate bobbed slightly as it was hoisted up by a forklift and jettisoned into place. A worker in an orange vest poked at the plastic vapour barrier. “That’s the front, right?” he asked. Others set to the task of tying down the sculpture with thick straps. All the bike wheels are functional, creating multiple pivot points, which means the bikes had a tendency to drift outward as the piece was dismantled—the straps kept the whole thing from collapsing on itself.
1:00 p.m. When it’s installed indoors, Forever Bicycles can stand alone without reinforcement. Outdoors, subject to the lateral force of the wind, the sculpture requires support beams to withstand the weather—not to mention the occasional illegal climber. Without being tied down, the whole thing can actually roll. In order to take it apart, workers crawled up through the structure and perched upon it, strategically disconnecting the cables strung throughout and loosening bolts so that the bikes could be lifted off. Some of the cycles are actually attached to each other, and look like they’re barely fastened to the main framework at all. Standing atop a cherry picker, a man carefully affixed a chain to just such a cluster of bikes, which were lifted off in one chunk by a miniature crane. “We’ve got four personnel lifts, a telescopic forklift, and we brought in a crane to do the higher stuff,” said Sellors. “We can lift off big banks of bicycles and then dismantle on the ground.”
Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1:09 p.m. Four crates sat along the south side of the site, each containing 80 bicycles and 160 wheels. Everything was packaged up the same way it was shipped here, with some wheels taken off frames to maximize the space. The bicycles are designed to be tamper-proof and require specialized tools to disassemble. (Throughout the duration of the exhibit, only one wheel was stolen—on the night of Nuit Blanche.) For the deconstruction, workers used a metal saw to cut the support beams in half—a process that produced a smell like burning hair. Meanwhile, a woman in a protective helmet paused for a smoke before resuming the seemingly endless task of disconnecting wheels from frames. A bearded worker scanned the remaining pile of bikes and gave a wheel on the table in front of him a little spin.
Wednesday, Oct. 30, 5 p.m. The final bank of bikes hung suspended from a chain. A man in an orange hard hat grinned and hollered at me: “Interested in some slightly used bicycles?” Sellors acknowledged the challenge he faced in getting some workers used to handling art. “They’re coming from a construction site where they can throw bolts or throw a truss. We have to give them a rundown: ‘Don’t throw that. Don’t drop that; it’s artwork.’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a wheel.’”
Thursday, Oct. 31, 3:00 p.m. A security guard shivered under an umbrella as the crew packed the remaining support beams into heavy black cases. The steel grating of the floor had been lifted up and workers eased out spotlights from the cavity beneath the square.
Friday, Nov. 1, 5 p.m. With the 40 crates of bicycles in storage until their next destination is announced, nothing remained of the exhibit, save for the flimsy skeleton of the crew’s site tent and a few empty Tim Hortons cups. Seagulls squabbled over a hot-dog bun and a young man in cargo pants and a backpack raced through the flock of birds as he cut across the empty square on his bike.