As the Art Gallery of Ontario's director Matthew Teitelbaum said in his intro to a preview of David Bowie Is, "In creating his persona, David Bowie has created one of the major artworks of our time." Of course the word 'art' is always subjective and Bowie has always been an, often deliberately, polarizing artist. The 'art' is indeed important but what is astounding about David Bowie Is, is the emotional impact it wields.
Co-curator Geoffrey Marsh said in a pre-opening interview that, "We didn't want to do a retrospective. It's not the story of David Bowie. Over 300,000 people viewed the exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum and they all had their own experience. They bring their own view. In a curious way he is a shamanistic character, a lightning conductor." Marsh's theory is that by creating characters and inhabiting them, however briefly, he urges his audience to delve into themselves and their desires, enables them to visualize, and sometimes become, what they want to be, how they want to change themselves and the world. "At some level it validates their own experiences and they realize they are part of that change."
The accompanying book, also titled David Bowie Is, is packed with essays as well as photos. Prominent thinkers riff on their experiences of David Bowie and what he, and his art, means to them. It is dizzying, thought-provoking and utterly compulsive reading. And yet it doesn't prepare one for the exhibit. As visually dazzling as the objects on display are; as fascinating as the mountains of facts and quotes are; one still sees Bowie's art through a filter of one's own experience. My Bowie began with a small town boy finding hope in the sexuality and outsiderness of the glamorous Ziggy Stardust, and still continues with a mature artist exploring the power of words, music, sexuality and genderfucking.
Bowie gleefully pillaged any influence that caught his intellectual, musical or visual fancy and mixed it into "this stew that became all the elements I could use," and David Bowie Is draws direct lines to those influences and how they were mutated and reconstituted. Alastair Newton's Of a Monstrous Child did similar work with Lady Gaga but Bowie has decades, and a back catalogue, that leaves the nascent pop idol in the dust. Bowie's longevity is quite simply astounding - that the work continues to be relevant and astonishing even more s
The audio, an innovation by Sennheiser, cuts in and out as it syncs with video projections or offers Bowie's own voice. It is masterful and immersive. The music of course fulfils Noel Coward's aphorism of the power of cheap music and is a constant reminder of just how much Bowie was, at some point, the soundtrack of our lives. And the image of what we were or became or longed to become. I had no idea that seeing the Pierrot costume from "Ashes to Ashes" would be an emotionally moving moment but, of course, it was Bowie assessing his life, trashing his past and moving forward at a moment in time when I was attempting something similar: I just didn't have the words or concept of it at that time. I have no doubts that specific artefacts had the exact same effect on every viewer in a very intense personal way.
Viewing an artist's creative evolution is always a spellbinding experience and David Bowie Is has non-stop connections and visual pizazz. I had no idea that the Sound & Vision tour, the first Bowie show I saw, was originally not the stark thrill it was, but was supposed to use giant nine-foot choreographed puppets. The endless ideas that Bowie had and abandoned or modified, open the world to all possibilities. And where else can one ponder the cocaine spoon that filled Bowie's nose while recording Diamond Dogs or the "telefax" that Elvis Presley sent Bowie to congratulate him on his inaugural tour now that they were labelmates?
David Bowie Is doesn't reveal who David Bowie really is - no-one may ever know, as Marsh says, "He's a construction, not a real rockstar. In a way he's been curating himself. He's this normal guy who has this elaborate construction he manipulates from behind" - but it reveals much about the viewer and the creative process. And Marsh, and most viewers, will find it inspiring, "His continual determination to never sell out, to do what he wanted. He's now financially able to do what he wants but for much of his early career he wasn't. He shows that if you keep going and are determined, you can get there."
David Bowie Is continues until Wed, Nov 27 the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St W. ago.net