David Bowie Is

David Bowie Astronauts of Outer Space.jpg

Submitted by Mark Smith
Copyright: The David Bowie Archive
Photos Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Recently I attended the Art Gallery of Ontario press preview for “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918 showcases the dynamism, creativity, and innovation of art produced in Europe in the years leading up to and during the First World War.”

As part of a press preview, I was given the chance to stand back and view the exhibit: bonus no crowd to surf, a great opportunity to see multiple works within the same vantage point. A truly great collection of paintings, hung chronologically, reflecting this important time in history.  As a fan of art and art history, I was captivated by the influences each artist had on the others; utilizing colors, twisting images to suit their interpretation of their time and place. Chagall, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Leger, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian and Picasso all feeding off each other and together changing the way we see art.  The exhibit closes with quote by Einstein projected on the floor and wall that reads:
“ The World Cannot be changed without changing our thinking”

After two glorious hours of eyeball inebriation, we wandered up to the David Bowie Is exhibit. I had been avoiding this, fearing it would be a treading out of familiar costumes on faceless mannequins, like the recent Lady Diana shows. I was also fighting the feeling that a current pop culture exhibit did not fit in a gallery the caliber of the AGO, fitting maybe better in the more casual MOCCA or a rented warehouse space.

Originally staged at the V&A in London, the exhibit is laid out both chronologically and by influences on Bowie’s explorations and development. We enter the exhibit directly off the elevators into a dimly lit, intimate space introducing us to David Jones; post-war UK, his first bands and a well-produced, digital multi-plain video interpretation of his apartment in Soho. These are first indicators of the influence of time and place on him.

Winding through the show, I started to revel in seeing his persona develop. Music began to become secondary. I began to listen to the commentary around me, lingering, watching how others were reacting. I started to think of everything I had read about the show, about Bowie and how all those words had failed me; I was discovering a person, not a celebrity or a contrived rock star.

Halfway through the show, moving to another floor, the senses explode. The staging gets grander and bigger, ending up in what could be back stage at Wembley, costumes on mannequins in front and behind 20-foot high video scrims. “Heroes” videos from different eras synched together, youthful energy with neck tensing delivery to the calm elegance of a veteran, the Thin White Duke, delivering words with passion.

Also represented are contemporaries, Gilbert and George, Warhol, Mark Bolan, Iggy Pop, Alexander McQueen and many others who shared time and place with Bowie, interpreting, feeding off each other, together changing the way we see art, with Bowie absorbing all of it and translating into something the masses could relate to.  Bowie is often described as a trendsetter; maybe another way to describe him is an interpreter.

Like all great artists, Bowie started off developing a technique; rather then a paintbrush he has a voice and used that to explain the world around him. Near the end of the exhibit, a small piece of text that summed up my new understanding; [paraphrasing] after presenting Aretha Franklin with a Grammy Award for outstanding achievement, he would later tell Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone how out of place he had felt. Bowie has spent his life trying to explain how he saw the world and how he did not fit in it and we are richer for it.

Like the Great Upheaval exhibit, David Bowie Is has a wall projection quote that reads:
“Re-interpretation is Change”

The AGO’s David Bowie Is multi-media presentation was a major gallery show that walks you through the behind-the-scenes intricacies of rock stardom from a very personal perspective of one of the greatest living artists of our time, a contemporary parallel to the masters we previewed in The Great Upheaval.

Sadly the exhibition at the AGO has now closed, after an unprecedented extension.  The closest it gets to returning is September 2014 to January 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.