An Artistic Review of 2019 Indian's FTR 1200

Hunting for art aboard Indian’s new FTR 1200

2019 Indian FTR 1200 motorcycles riding in desert.
Between Salton Sea and Coachella, there are a million places to get lost and found.Yelena Sophia

Artists and riders aren’t all that different. Through simple hedonism or ascetic quests, they both affirm and reject the bonds of community that sustain them. They search for truth and conveniently leave behind the realities of everyday life. New experiences, new forms. The thistle in the soul pushes us. In the 1960s, young visionaries rejected the idea that art should live in museums, framed and fraught over by old men in ascots. Art should be liberated from institutional confines, and from traditional canvases as well. Replacing cloth and oil, landscape itself became the medium of artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and James Turrell. Their work became known as land art. They used the canvas of the Southwest’s desert to make something of nothing, with dynamite, bulldozers, and tons of rock.

It stands to reason that art would escape to the Southwest. It’s a giant, beautifully flawed canvas. And for us, an outsize 1,203cc American hooligan bike is the perfect brush.

Indian's first V-twin debuted in a factory racer in 1905, with a street model appearing in 1907. Likewise, the new FTR 1200 S follows the supremely successful FTR750. By kicking Harley-Davidson's ass in American Flat Track, Indian used an ancient spark of rivalry to forge a motorcycle that (finally) provokes longing and lust in demographically desirable 21- to 29-year-old hearts. These are the hearts to have. In time, they'll wear the fringe of their fathers. But for now, they're restless and not beholden to the past.

2019 Indian FTR 1200 motorcycles riding down dirt road in desert.
Wide Dunlops find their footing easy in deep dust and packed sand. And they provide the perfect pen to apply dirt signatures anywhere and everywhere.Yelena Sophia

There’s no solid rationale in taking this bike to go see art in the desert landscape. The work we’re looking for has little in common with the FTR, or motorcycling in general. We’re looking for expression carved into land itself, in fixed coordinates, with ambiguous truths and wide-open meaning. Conversely, the FTR’s statement is simple: maximum gratification immediately. Not art at all. But opposites engender themselves.

Our itinerary has everything. One installation has been free and open for 35 years. The other isn’t open to anyone besides rich donors (hello, Kanye West) and select ASU students.

“Salvation Mountain” located by the entrance to Slab City in Niland, California.
“Salvation Mountain” located by the entrance to Slab City in Niland, California.Yelena Sophia

“Salvation Mountain” in Niland, California, speaks to a simple truth that Leonard Knight was thunderstruck by at 10:30 a.m. one morning in 1967. “God Is Love” is the sole message of his entire life’s work. Simple, unrelenting positivity. It’s been open to the public for decades.

By contrast, Roden Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona, uses light to help us rethink our relationship to Earth and the cosmos. It also simulates your last journey in life. The East Portal re-creates our final walk to the light. Unfortunately, the general public can’t practice their demise until 2024, when Roden Crater will, probably, open to the public after nearly 40 years.

Also of note is Michael Heizer’s “City” installation, located 160 miles northwest of Mesquite, Nevada. Begun in 1972, it’s slated to open to the public in 2020. When completed, it will be larger than the National Mall. “City” is a sprawling design, part homage to Monte Albán, part Mies van der Rohe.

2019 Indian FTR 1200 motorcycle on grass in desert.
A 1,203cc mound of Indian tracker meets Andrew Rogers’ “Rhythm of Life.”Yelena Sophia

Other artists take less than a lifetime to complete their works. Over endless concrete slabs numbering 5, 10, 405, and 90, the Indian delivers us from Los Angeles and into the desert. A touring bike the FTR ain’t. It’s exposed and vital, and it thrusts you upright and aggressively into the wind and the world. Grenade launcher, meet knife fight. Dirt-track Dunlop treads meander slightly on concrete grooves. Rearsets are pinned back in anticipation of escaping anything over two lanes. Perfect. Let’s ride the animals out of the zoo.

Andrew Rogers’ “Rhythms of Life” is situated on Black Mesa, near Yucca Valley, California, just outside Joshua Tree National Park. It’s a big installation, a massive pair of designs comprised of 460 tons of stone, stacked low and neat, like a twisting, intricate wall, and facing east. It’s one small part of a worldwide series of installations of the same name. Few people visit the work up close—it’s game. In capable hands, the FTR scampers up the 15-degree boulder-strewn path, the capable Dunlops slinging stones in an arc behind it. Up close, the visual impact is twofold. The view extends for miles, almost to our next destination.

Sitting in van and preparing for the dirt ascent up to “Rhythm of Life.”
Preparing for the dirt ascent up to “Rhythm of Life.”Yelena Sophia

From a Native American perspective, marking the land is an act of Western hubris. To assume man’s hand (or cerebrum) has the right to desecrate land for anything besides burial rites is debatable. “Rhythm of Life” is just stones stacked on soil. But Heizer’s “Double Negative” involved dynamiting and removing 240,000 tons of rock. It cuts an unnatural abscess across Mormon Mesa through promontories that took eons to form. At its inception, its lines and edges were sharp and unnatural, but the same erosion that shaped the mesa has shaped Heizer’s art as well, blunting the sharpness of the cuts in the earth. Regardless, the next stop calls.

The FTR takes us to dustier, dirtier climes, spitting dirt as we go. We dab its rear-wheel brush across packed dirt and clay, leaving temporary graffiti. We’re no better than Turrell, Heizer, or Smithson, really. All signature, no art. The FTR seduces any rider to scrawl “I was here” on any and all surfaces. Sorry, America.

Land art can be indelible and permanent, but the recent Desert X Biennial is temporary. A total of 18 artists created 28 installations, scattered over 55 miles, from Palm Desert to the Salton Sea. From petro dollars, indigenous peoples, and immigration, it speaks to immediate concerns of the here and now rather than larger, timeless questions about art’s existence.

Pia Camil’s “Lover’s Rainbow.”
Pia Camil’s “Lover’s Rainbow” rises where optimism was needed.Yelena Sophia

Pia Camil’s “Lover’s Rainbow” sits just off Highway 111, providing a rebar rainbow to a landscape that surely could use one. Located in the middle of a busy cluster of strip malls, it asks pointed questions about gentrification in an environment that normally asks nothing of visitors.

Then there’s Julian Hoeber’s “Going Nowhere Pavilion,” shaped like a Möebius strip. It uses topology in order to explore psychological truths. It’s also located in a family neighborhood. Signs tell visitors not to climb on the work, but children are children. They explore.

2019 Indian FTR 1200 signing dirt-squiggle signatures in dirt.
Having fun signing dirt-squiggle signatures in legal-ish areas.Yelena Sophia

Hitting Palm Desert and Palm Springs on our way to Salton Sea, Desert X exhibits give way to unrelenting sun, salt, and sand. The FTR clears its throat. This Indian isn’t old leather and soapstone. It’s a middle finger mohawk atop a full-throated war cry. Under the steel trellis frame, the 60-degree liquid-cooled V-twin is about 25 hp up on the competition variant. Actual flat track bikes can’t usefully put more than 95 ponies to the earth, but the street FTR has no such limits. Despite fuel-mapping issues when cold, our identical twin steeds throw 87 pound-feet of torque all over the tach. And with a 60-inch wheelbase and 7.2-inch clearance, it can play off pavement—with some care. Buried under tasteful colors and trim is the bike’s true purpose: white-knuckle fun with no ­destination in mind.

For a few hours, we're finally, gloriously nowhere.

Televisions, translated. “East Jesus” invites you to unplug.
Televisions, translated. “East Jesus” invites you to unplug.Yelena Sophia

“Salvation Mountain” shares some traits. Created in 1984 by Leonard Knight, a man with no art background, his life story is a pilgrimage. Having spent 14 years trying to build a hot-air balloon with “God Is Love” emblazoned on the side, Knight’s job changing truck tires led him to Niland, where he became enchanted with the abandoned World War II-era Camp Dunlap that became Slab City. “Salvation Mountain” began here. Twice, actually. The first collapsed, due to poor construction. Knight, undaunted, immediately began building a second, sturdier installation. In this final structure, his spiritual message finally triumphed. Knight died in 2014.

The optional Akrapovic can is disappointingly quiet—until we attempt a 5:30 a.m. photo shoot at “Salvation Mountain.” There, it buys just five minutes before an angry caretaker blocks our camera and threatens to call the cops or his “friends in Slab City.” We return at a decent hour. Though it’s public land, Slab City is “administered to” by an autonomous anarchist collective, who’ve also built an art park called “East Jesus.” They’ve got a reputation. A recent visitor had his helmet stolen. A Slab City resident offered to help him find it, and $80 later, the helmet was found.

Author with pink sunglasses.
Pink, unshaven, and unafraid of exploring Slab City.Yelena Sophia

In Slab City, “God Is Love” messages mix with “Please Keep Off” and “Please Keep Out” signs. Rules govern this place, like anywhere else. The “East Jesus” art installation is a paean to a world without waste. Broken televisions are stacked seven high, forming a wall of anti-mass-media manifestos. Hundreds of castaway objects and vehicles form beautiful, abstract sculptures. Dark themes mix easily with childlike purpose and humor. “Salvation Mountain” may be the only work in Slab City actually connected to earth and stone, but “East Jesus” is a spiritual expression of the land itself. They’re protective for a reason.

Fertile to the imagination, but deadly to life, the Salton Sea smells decent enough when we visit, but bugs bite tramp stamps into those who sit too long. Despite its well-known environmental issues, it’s beautiful. The Niland Boat Ramp Campground hasn’t launched any boats recently, but salt-encrusted concrete and crumbling breakwaters are great for camping. Nearby Border Patrol officers wave us on and watch as the FTR headlights probe the dusk for a place to rest. Despite the 350-mile day, we still test the limits of fork travel over berms and rocks until we reach the campsite.

"East Jesus” in Slab City transforms refuse into spiritual revival.
"East Jesus” in Slab City transforms refuse into spiritual revival.Yelena Sophia

Stars are strong, and the only sound is wind and heartbeats. It’s terrifying loneliness and infinite dust. Freedom and responsibility, with transcendent beauty and consequences. Any complaints about comfort get answered in beer. And for a few hours, we’re finally, gloriously nowhere. Human voices disappear and celestial ones take over. The trip perspective shifts.

We were supposed to come up with a rationale for taking the FTR to the desert. Guess we forgot. We hit each site and took everything in, but as soon as we pulled away, it all turned into a snarling blur. Metaphors tying bike to art in meaning and truth miss the point. The FTR is all animus—just the fuel, air, and spark to hurtle you toward wherever the bars are pointed. A spirit took hold; we just kept twisting the throttle to keep up with it.

So, about that journey vs. destination thing. Or land art vs. folk art. Or even asceticism vs. hedonism. We can debate all we like, but they’re just meaningless polemics; 113 ponies powered our ride on the third rail, letting us experience both sides of each question. Our adrenaline and serotonin-fueled adventure had to come to an end. But with an FTR to explore country and controversy, this wonderful debate can rage forever.