David Bowie. The name evokes a vast array of haunting lyrics and flamboyant styles: flash and pop, fashion and fame, glitz and glam, art and artifice, and the blurring of forms.
For me, the image that always leapt to mind was him running out on stage in the “Modern Love” video, with perfect suit, tie undone, and bouncy 80s hair bopping along as he danced at the microphone. Though I was familiar with his earlier work by osmosis if nothing else, the “Let’s Dance” album was my first Bowie purchase and – perish the thought – on cassette. I might still have it, though after 30 years, it’s now an artifact itself; a glossy memory of adolescence and the beginnings of independence. My formal introduction was thus smack-dab in the middle of an extraordinary career of transition and transformation.
The David Bowie is exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (and organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum) most assuredly filled in the before-and-after gaps. This is a show about art and language, and artful language; of poetry and literature, film and photography, all of which were contributions to the multi-layered imagery inherent in song and story.
There is so very much to see – and hear, of course (do partake of the headset) – a history of pop culture and the earlier icons who influenced his work and inspired his many personae. The art in the collection is astounding, particularly his own pieces, many of which will make you pause and study.
There is an exploration of inner space and outer space, presence and existentialism, with a multitude of costumes and set designs, creations and illustrations, telling time on a complex watch with time-machine movement. On the poster for the 1986 movie “Labyrinth” in which Bowie stars as the “Goblin King Jareth” are the words, “Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.”
While there are certainly illusory elements in his work, they are purposefully so, which simply reinforces the undeniable intensity of expression that has influenced pop culture over the course of four decades. Plan to stay longer than you might think, because you’ll want to linger over the details in the narrative and under the glow of the video screens. You might even find yourself wanting to sway, while colour lights up your face.
Just a few highlights:
Favourite literary reference: D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Favourite photograph: David Bowie, Reality Sessions by Frank W. Ockensfels 3 (2003) – it’s near the end, by the way
Favourite fashion: Costume for Screaming Lord Byron – Jazzin’ for Blue Jean by designer Alison Chitty (1984)
Favourite gift shop item: Union Jack denim (Oh, I was tempted, but alas, they didn’t have my size!!!)