1. Yes, a pop star belongs in an art gallery
When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that it’d be following up its exhibit of a revolutionary Chinese artist with a collection of memorabilia from an aging pop star, many questioned whether the move was simply a cash-grab. After all, attendance records were shattered during the show’s original five-month run in London, where over 300,000 visitors passed through the doors of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum.
To address these complaints, the AGO’s press materials for David Bowie Is go out of their way to stress Bowie’s influence on the visual arts, theatre, film, and fashion, but they really didn’t need to work so hard. Surrounding himself with the most talented creative minds of his (and past) generations, Bowie seamlessly incorporated imagery from Surrealism, German Expressionism, Pop Art, and Japanese Kabuki into his perpetually shifting, yet singular identity. In a world that was just beginning to embrace globalization, Bowie’s performances were a crash course in avant-garde art from around the world.
So, alongside the perfunctory set lists and costume pieces, the exhibition also presents a decent annotated history of art in the 20th century. It’s by no means definitive, but the addition of pieces from artists such as Erich Heckel, Le Corbusier, Victor Vasarely, and, of course, Andy Warhol help us explore Bowie’s fascination with visual and performance art while revealing just how indebted he was to work of others. David Bowie wasn’t from outer space. He just knew where to be, and who to know, at exactly the right time.
2. David Bowie has hoarder tendencies.
Given the astounding breadth of material on display, it’s easy to forget that all of these objects were personally maintained by Bowie himself. From his hand-written lyrics to “Ziggy Stardust,” to the crystal ball he caressed in Labyrinth, practically everything he encountered from the age of 16 has been kept for posterity. Bowie now employs a full-time curator to properly preserve the 60,000-odd items in his New York archives.
3. It’s impossible to separate David Robert Jones from David Bowie.
Time and time again, the exhibition stresses that “David Bowie” is a construct, a performance-art piece, a reflection of popular culture back at itself. Yet it also tries to humanize David Robert Jones, sharing his family history and even going so far as to offer visitors literal “glimpses through the keyhole” into his consciousness. It’s a tricky line to toe, and given that Bowie provided little to no input into the curation of his archive, this “David Robert Jones” ultimately becomes just another one of Bowie’s ever-changing personas.
4. Headphones at a gallery don’t have to put you to sleep.
Pick up a set of headphones at a traditional exhibition, and you’ll be treated to the dulcet tones of art historians explaining riveting facts about composition and canvas preparation. David Bowie Is, however, finds an innovative way of incorporating music into the viewing experience. Visitors keep the headphones on for the duration of their visit, and the sound clips they hear automatically adjust to suit each room they enter.
This constant stream of music and information makes for a pretty phantasmagoric experience, and it’s also a great reflection of the cut-up technique that so influenced Bowie’s early career. (Pioneered by the Dadaists and popularized by writer—and Bowie collaborator—William S. Burroughs), the process involves taking an existing text or sound bite and rearranging it to create a new work of art.) It’s dizzying, but in a suitably Bowie way.
5. David Bowie had—and still has?—the waist of a 15-year-old girl.
Thanks to his propensity for bodysuits, we all know that David Bowie was blessed with the body of a young Kate Moss. What I didn’t know was that each mannequin in the AGO exhibition had to be custom-sculpted to display his elaborate costumes. Turns out male mannequins with 26 ½ inch waistlines are hard to come by.—Kate Fane
“David Bowie Is” runs from Sept. 25–Nov. 27 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 317 Dundas St. W., 416-979-6648, ago.net.
Photos: Courtesy of the AGO