This fall the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) offers North America its first chance to take an exciting odyssey through the world of David Bowie in the exhibition “David Bowie is,” created by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Spanning five decades and featuring more than 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive, the multi-media show exposes the ground-breaking artist’s collaborations in the fields of fashion, sound, theatre, art, and film. The exhibition opened on Sept. 25, 2013 and runs to Nov. 27, 2013.
The AGO is the exhibition’s first stop on its world tour. The show will be travelling for the next three years to six more museums around the world. After Toronto, it will continue on to the Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo, Brazil (28 January to 21 April 2014), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (September 2014 to January 2015) the Philharmonie de Paris/ Cité de la Musique, Paris (2 March to 31 May 2015) and finally to the Groninger Museum in The Netherlands (15 December 2015 to 15 March 2016).
Organized thematically, the show immerses visitors in a spectacular and interactive trip through Bowie’s numerous personae and legendary performances, with particular attention paid to his artistic influences. His experiments with Surrealism, German Expressionism, Music Hall, mime and Japanese Kabuki performance are all explored in an explosion of colour, light and sound.
Maintained by the artist himself, the David Bowie Archive is home to more than 75,000 objects. Working with Sandy Hirskowitz, the collection’s archivist, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh (curators of theatre and performance at the V&A) were granted unprecedented access to explore and hand-pick the costumes, footage and objects for the exhibition. This marked the first time a museum has been allowed to display items from the collection.
The exhibition is on view on the fourth and fifth floors of the AGO’s contemporary tower. In contrast to the presentation at the V&A, where the whole show was packed into one big room with multiple audio-visual and multi-media tracks clashing all the time and creating a chaotic and disorienting atmosphere, the AGO’s thematic division of the exhibition materials into different rooms on two floors works much better and allows the visitors to take in all of the artefacts, costumes, songs, video and documentary footage, without being overwhelmed.
The audio-guide is synced with the different screens and spaces, and activates automatically when positioned in front of a screen or display. It is particularly effective in the music video room, where each of the squares on the floor corresponds to each TV screen on the wall, and the audio track to each music video can be accessed by stepping onto the right square.
In addition to Bowie’s own handwritten set lists, lyrics, diary entries, instruments and sketches, the show highlights the many artists who have collaborated with the culture chameleon over the years. A touching addition to the collaborations room was a blown-up note from late designer Alexander McQueen who created Bowie’s Union Jack jacket.
“I remember by the Wall – over our heads – nothing could fall. / I can remember standing by the Wall / and the guns shot above our heads / and we kissed as though nothing could fall / and shame was on the other side / we’re nothing and nothing will help us / Maybe we’re lying then you better not stay / But we could be safer / Just for one day.” (“Heroes” recorded at Hansa Studios, 1977)
The exhibit features a hand-written note from Christopher Isherwood to David Bowie, as well as the keys to his apartment at 155 Hauptstrasse, in Schöneberg, West-Berlin. The Berlin-themed room celebrates Bowie’s three albums that he recorded at the Hansa Studios, as well as the self-portraits he painted at the time which were very much influenced by German Expressionist art.
As Thomas Jerome Seabrook notes in his book, Bowie in Berlin (2008), “Although Isherwood told Bowie that Berlin was by no means as exciting a place as his writings from the 1930s suggested, the singer seemed sold on the idea of moving there. By the end of the year, he would be living within a mile of where Isherwood had lived in Berlin; the city would have much the same effect on Bowie as it did on Isherwood, driving him to produce the greatest and most influential work of his career.” (Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town. London: Jawbone Press, 2008, p.64)
“For ‘Heroes,’ Bowie booked out Hansa’s largest room, the Meistersaal or Studio 2, famed for its close proximity, at the time, to the Berlin Wall. The wall – or Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart, as it was known in East Germany – was several hundred yards from Hansa, but it was possible to see the armed border-guards patrolling it from the studio window.”(Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.161)
“The studio’s other important feature was its vastness. A Weimar-era former ballroom that had, by all accounts, also been used to host Nazi Party soirees, Studio 2 – the ‘hall by the wall,’ as it became known – was big enough for a 100-piece orchestra.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.161)
“Despite their stated intention to clean up, Bowie and Iggy’s initial time spent in Berlin was very much a period of transition – of binging and purging, relapse and recovery. They might have escaped the clutches of Los Angeles, a city seemingly built on cocaine, but they now found themselves in what Bowie later called “the heroin capital of the world,” which made life particularly difficult for Iggy.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.117)
“Rehearsals [on The Idiot] began in mid February in Babelsberg, a fairly large city on the outskirts of Berlin. Bowie hired out an old screening-room at the rather dilapidated UFA building, which was once one of Europe’s most prominent film studios (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was one of the numerous classics of early cinema to have been made there), but which since the war had struggled to shake off a reputation for having produced Nazi propaganda films during the 1930s and 1940s. “They still had all these wonderful German Expressionist films just sitting in cans rotting,” recalled Iggy. “You could smell the film slowly going bad.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.137)
“I hold the same opinion as Günter Grass,” Bowie told Vogue in 1978, “that Berlin is [at] the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.82)
“What this left,” as Bowie put it in 1977, was “a city cut off from its world, art, and culture, dying with no hope of retribution.” This was not the city of flamboyant, carefree decadence that Isherwood had written about four decades earlier, but eerie echoes of that time lingered – as did the remnants of Albert Speer’s grand designs to rebuild the city as Welthauptstadt Germania. “It’s such an ambiguous place,” Bowie told Vogue. “It’s hard to distinguish between the ghosts and the living.” The pervading air of faded glamour, economic anxiety, and ideological dislocation gave Berlin a distinctly melancholic feel, but there remained too, a defiant, renegade spirit.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.83)
The exhibition concludes with a display of images cataloguing Bowie’s influence on music, film, fashion, as well as on many artists, actors, models, and musicians who came after him. What I found missing was a more detailed account of his relationships with fashion designers, such as Kansai Yamamoto and Freddie Burretti, who designed costumes for his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane tours and helped him both define and revolutionize the glam rock movement, and inspire generations to come.
“There comes a time in every man’s life,” Bowie is forced to declare at one point, “where he has to avoid making the same mistake as Napoleon.” (Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin, p.205)
The city of Toronto celebrated Bowie’s arrival with promotional banners, posters, display windows at the Holt Renfrew department store on Bloor St. and vintage stores all around downtown. The city’s celebration of glam rock, which Bowie revolutionized through his persona of Ziggy Stardust, and Bowie’s legacy are palpable everywhere in Toronto’s fashion, art, museums and galleries. In fact, as my colleague Kathryn Franklin argues, glam has always been part of Toronto’s chic.
“Turn and face the strange.” (David Bowie)
“If it works, it’s out of date.” (David Bowie)
“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” (David Bowie)
“I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home / I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed / I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here / We must have died along, a long long time ago / Who knows? not me / We never lost control / You’re face to face / With the man who sold the world. (David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold the World,” 1970)
“All art is unstable.” (David Robert Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie)