Icons can influence people in indirect, peripheral ways. Artists who achieve some measure of cultural ubiquity quickly become diffuse and viral, influencing fashion and music and informing the hive-mind concept of what it is to be “cool”. Sometimes you end up becoming a fan without even realizing it. I now see that I am, and always have been, a David Bowie fan.
David Bowie is currently being canonized into rock and roll sainthood with a massive retrospective exhibition called “David Bowie is”, which is currently showing at the AGO in Toronto. I’ve never considered myself a dedicated Bowie fan, but what I recognized when I attended the exhibit was how much he has contributed to my musical imagination in totally lateral ways. I realized he’d had a bigger impression on me than I’d previously thought.
The first aspect of the exhibition worthy of note is the sheer scale of the thing. Simply put, it is a massive installation, sprawling over two floors of the AGO. Though not strictly chronological, it does sort of arrange Bowie’s career into phases: early stuff (pre-“Bowie” Bowie), his big breakthrough period in the Seventies when he re-wrote the rules of rock stardom, the troublesome Eighties, and then everything else. Walking into any of the rooms, the simple process of deciding what to focus on is daunting.
Adding to the sensory overload is a unique audio tour, which is a free feature of the exhibition. You strap on this little headphone gizmo, and the audio starts automatically when you approach certain items. You might hear audio from one of the video installations, cultural commentators discussing Bowie’s legacy, or most interestingly, the voice of the artist himself (which has taken on more value now that he claims he’s done with interviews). The overall effect is fragmentary and disorienting, which is probably part of the point. With an artist like Bowie, everything must be considered in terms of influence and context. His whole artistic being is built on re-contextualization and deconstruction. So after a while, I gave up trying to parse the meaning out of everything, and I submitted to the pure awe.
The show has been referred to as Bowie’s closet, which is fair because a lot of it is dedicated to his costumes. His impact on stage-wear is probably actually under-acknowledged, if only because Bowie took the initial ideas of the Sixties rock star and turned them on their heads. Previously, rock stars had been whacky dressers, but Bowie took the whole idea of stage clothing into another realm. No longer were you expected to wear the same thing off-stage as you wore on-stage. Authenticity was out, theatricality was in! You’re welcome, Lady Gaga.
Side note: David is a short little guy! I was standing in front of the “Starman” costume, and I couldn’t believe how small it was! Of course, cocaine helps keep the waistline trim, but his frame was small to begin with. It’s funny how rock stars always seem like giants until you see them up close.
The main thing to take away from the whole thing is just how absolutely fearless Bowie was/is as an artist. He cycles through ideas at a relentless pace, never settling on anything for very long. He recombines elements of other art forms in a way that is itself an art form. For him, change was a state of being. He’s the great chameleon of pop.
In keeping with the spirit of the show, here is a random sampling of my favourite items and rooms from the exhibition:
- First room: the early years. The first room of the show is entirely dedicated to Davy Jones. It has all the evidence that exists of David’s pre-Bowie career. It’s fascinating to see him as the awkward singer/saxophonist of a standard R & B band, or as a budding folk singer with a twelve-string guitar. Some attention is also paid to his early love of Buddhism, and the spiritual dilemma posed by the concept of non-attachment when all you want to do is be a famous musician. You can practically feel the cognitive dissonance in his early work; he longed for transcendence as much as acceptance. This room also contains some crazy cool rock and roll artifacts like his first 45s, handwritten lyrics to early songs, and the letter sent by his manager to his record label, declaring that he was now only to be referred to as “David Bowie”. It’s the birth certificate of the legend.
- Needless to say, the dude has had some impressive costumes over the years. But the one that was burned into my memory, even more than all the Ziggy costumes, was the famous Union Jack coat from the “Earthling” period, designed by Alexander McQueen. That album was released in 1997, when I was 15 years old and music videos were still a thing. I have very vivid memories of the videos for “Little Wonder” (with a video by the queen of weird Nineties videos, Floria Sigismondi) and “I’m Afraid Of Americans”. It was the first time that Bowie had appeared to me in the present, not as an eccentric star from the past, but as a living, vital contributor to modern music.
- There’s a whole section dedicated to the famous “Berlin period”, when he and Iggy Pop moved to Germany to try to clean up. While they were living together, Bowie painted a portrait of Iggy, which is hanging in the corner of one of the smaller exhibition rooms. It’s insanely cool: one iconoclastic badass painting another.
- The Verbalizer: earlier I said that Bowie is a fearless artist, and I offer this crazy thing as proof. There’s a section in one of the later rooms dedicated to Bowie’s strategies for keeping new ideas flowing. This includes the famous “Oblique Strategies” cards developed by Eno, but Bowie took the idea of Dadaist rock even further. At some point in the Nineties, he worked with a computer guy to develop a program that would chop up sentences and reassemble them in random order- which he then used to write lyrics! He explains in a video accompanying the Verbalizer that it allows him to access the surrealism of dreams, but without needing to waste time on sleep. He was so incredibly confident in his own grasp of his art that he allowed a computer to throw random lyrics at him. Like I said, the guy is fearless.
- Jareth, The Goblin King: As a child of the Eighties, the film “Labyrinth” had a big impact on me. It’s hard to think of what that movie would have been without Bowie’s involvement. Included in the exhibition is a hand-written note from Jim Henson to the future Goblin King, asking him to read the script and consider taking the role. “I think you’d be wonderful in the film”, he writes. It’s oddly touching.
- The final room: since you may never get a chance to see Bowie live ever again, this room is the an impressive attempt to create an experience resembling a big rock show. It sucks your imagination out of your head, blends it up with glitter, and squirts it back into your skull. The zeitgeist made manifest, with Bowie as the surreal carnival master of the world’s biggest post-modern circus.
Please exit through the gift shop.
“David Bowie is” runs until November 25th at the AGO. Go see it.