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Strange fascination, fascinating me: David Bowie is

Today, a year after the news of the great artist’s death we look back at a review of the ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition – the life, the music, the times and the artistry of David Bowie. Currently on exhibition at Warehouse TERRADA GI Building, Tokyo until April 9, 2017 this not to be missed presentation will travel to Museu del Disseny, Barcelona, Spain, from 25 May 2017. 

As a fan, I knew going into the exhibition that David Bowie is one in seven billion – an artistic force unlike anyone else. His myriad personas, alter egos, and artistic projects, have shaped David Bowie into a rare phenomenon – a simultaneously knowable and unknowable superstar. That level of uniqueness and artistic variety suggests that any exhibition exploring his life and work could not possibly cover everything, and even if it did, it wouldn’t do it well.

I’m a big enough person to admit that I was wrong.

David Bowie Is This Magnificent Life More & More
David Bowie during the filming of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video, 1980. Photograph by Brian Duffy. Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & the David Bowie Archive

David Bowie is is an immersive multimedia journey from Brixton, then to Bromley, through to the Moon, Mars, Hollywood, Berlin, and Warrumbungle National Park. It attempts to answer our collective question, “Who is David Bowie?” with the idea that, well, David Bowie is both anything he wants to be and anything you want him to be.

David Bowie Is This Magnificent Life
Photo collage by David Bowie of manipulated film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth Film 1975-76 Film stills by David James. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive, Film Stills © STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

The exhibition is broken up into sections that each delves into different aspects of Bowie’s artistic vision. (For example, David Bowie is crossing the border, David Bowie is moving from time to time.) Interestingly, it’s only partially set out in chronological order – the show’s structure allows the viewer to notice the themes that have stayed relatively the same throughout Bowie’s career even when his music and fashion choices have not.

David Bowie Is This Magnficent Life More & More
Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita ©Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

His collaborations with people as diverse as Iggy Pop, Klaus Nomi, Mick Rock, and Kansai Yamamoto highlight Bowie’s compulsion to surround himself with the best people in their fields, but also those whose avant-garde art questions viewers’ and listeners’ ideas of what art actually is and how it can communicate meaning. While staring at the now-iconic striped bodysuit Yamamoto created for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane tour, I began to understand that outfits so extraordinary have no inherent meaning that can’t be questioned – they’re either garish or refined, exciting or dull, subversive or expected, all depending on who you’re talking to.

David Bowie Is This Magnificent Life
Cut up lytics for ‘Blackout’ from ‘Heroes’ 1977. Courtesy of the David Bowie Archive, Image© Victoria and Albert Museum

There are, a lot, and I really mean a lot of artefacts included in the exhibition and this goes a long way in setting it apart from a lot of other pop culture exhibitions that seem to prefer to tell you what the meaning of it all is, rather than have you create your own understanding and appreciation of the art.

This Magnificent Life David Bowie Is
Publicity photograph for The Kon-rads, 1966. Photography by Roy Ainsworth. courtesy of The David Bowie Arichive, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

In fact, my favourite aspect of David Bowie is is that it has been curated in such a way as to allow Bowie himself to tell his story. It relies so heavily on his own handwritten lyrics, quotes from interviews, and costumes, that you feel as though you and David have reached your own consensus on who he is. What makes this exhibit so special is that this consensus is different for everyone.

The shared belief amongst most pop culture devourers like myself is that Bowie is an enigma, and because of his constantly changing sound, style, and artistic vision, he is malleable: his music and art can mean different things to you at different points in your life. Which David Bowie you value or enjoy the most is an individual decision.


David Bowie is This Magnificent Life
Quilted two-piece suit, 1972. Designed by Freddie Burretti for the Ziggy Stardust tour. Courtesy of the David Bowie Archive, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

It’s all summed up by a quote of Bowie’s from 1995, which features prominently in the exhibition, “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”

David Bowie Is This Magnificent Life
Album Cover Shoot for Aladdin Sane 1973. Photograph by Brian Duffy. Photo © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Collection

So then it remains, who is David Bowie?

When I left the area of the exhibition that required audio guidance and entered the room devoted to live performances and other prominent aspects of his career, I had to sit down for a moment and think. I was overwhelmed by the sense that David Bowie was, to me, anything I wanted, but what does that even mean?

David Bowie Is This Magnificent Life
David Bowie, 1973. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita ©Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Watching the performances playing on the large screen in the exhibition’s final room, I noticed one more piece of art that, in true Bowie fashion, can mean really anything. “Heroes” was, according to Bowie and his long-time producer Tony Visconti, written as a sarcastic ode to Visconti’s affair with a German backing vocalist. A song that uses irony to paint its ‘protagonists’ as engaging in something noble and triumphant, when clearly they weren’t.

Even without the help of the headset used in the previous parts of the exhibition, this room is incredibly immersive and the sheer size and sounds of the videos played is nothing short of mesmerising. One of the performances displayed on the large screen was of Bowie singing the 1977 hit, but the context of the song was entirely different.

Blasting from everywhere all at once, the sound of Bowie performing “Heroes” for 9/11 first responders at the 2001 Concert for New York echoed the sentiment of the entire exhibition. Suddenly in that moment, it’s not dripping with sarcasm, but instead is sincere and triumphant. The songs protagonists aren’t “Heroes” but legitimate heroes.

This song, like all of Bowie’s creations, isn’t actually about any one thing, as its origin story would have you believe. Just like the man himself, David Bowie’s art cannot be pinned down to being one singular thing. It just simply is.

David Bowie is This Magnificent Life
Original lyrics for ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie, 1972. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

I spent two whole hours wandering through David Bowie is, so afterwards, I stopped in a café to reflect on what it was I had just experienced.

I realised that David Bowie is art personified. He isn’t David Jones. He isn’t Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, or the Thin White Duke either. He’s everything I want him to be and I thank him for that.

Featured Image: The Archer Station to Station tour 1976. John Robert Rowlands Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

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