22 September 2015

David Bowie is...

I arrived fairly late at the revelation that David Bowie is amongst the most intriguing, captivating and inventive performing artists ever. The first glimpse of what would become an enduring fandom was the LP accompanying his performance in the Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth from 1986. The film still stands up as a prime example of intelligent and imaginative youthful fare, but it was the soundtrack that opened my ears to Bowie's voice and style. The five Bowie-penned songs on the Labyrinth soundtrack stand as some of the strongest work Bowie did in the 80s, ranging from the playful Magic Dance, the sweeping As The World Falls Down, and the rambunctious Underground.

From there it was a short step to the precious CD copy of 1971's Hunky Dory album owned by my school friend Tony, which invited me into a whole earlier Bowie incarnation I had been unaware of - the pre-popstar, hippie folky phase on the cusp of what would become Ziggymania, with Bowie enthralled by New York cutting edge music and art (Queen Bitch's Lou Reed-influenced observation, Andy Warhol as a whimsical tribute to the artist himself) and reaching out to those who would become his peers (Song For Bob Dylan). I'd defy anyone to listen to Side 1 of Hunky Dory and not become an instant Bowie fan: Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Eight Line Poem, Life On Mars?, Kooks, Quicksand. It certainly worked for me.

Which is why it was exciting when the Victoria & Albert Museum staged a major exhibition called David Bowie Is to examine Bowie in the broader contexts of both the multiple artforms he excels in, and the context of being just generally fucking awe-inspiring; Pete Paphides notes that in the exhibition 'you just gawp at the sheer ferocity with which his talent burnt at its height'. And it was even more exciting when the exhibition roamed far from London to international venues, including finally to the Australian Centre for the Moving Imagine (ACMI) in Melbourne's Federation Square.

The exhibition succeeds because it's more than a simple chronology of the rise and zenith of stardom, mellowing out into a study of iconic status as the elder statesdame of art-rock. Because attempting to fathom Bowie and his motivations has always been a complicated task, what with all the left-field musical decisions, radical reinventions, schizophrenic stage personae modifications, not to mention the odd spot of heavy-duty substance abuse. (There's not many V&A exhibition that feature the artist's own oft-used 1970s cocaine spoon).

And Bowie isn't just a master of the musical scene - he's also a performance artist with major film roles on his CV (including but not limited to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, the aforementioned Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ, Basquiat, Zoolander, The Prestige...) He's a trained mime. He writes. He's fascinated by experimental fashion and was an early adopter of that new-fangled internet thing. The exhibition rightly focuses strongly on the music, but also gives a flavour of all these other aspects of Bowie's career. And it makes a startlingly accurate claim at the outset:

'His influence on contemporary culture is arguably greater than any other musician of his generation'

There are of course many audio and video gems from the back catalogue as you explore David Bowie Is, and a few proposed answers to the implicit question in the exhibition title:
  • David Bowie is... all around us
  • David Bowie is... a face in the crowd
  • David Bowie is... crossing the border
  • David Bowie is... floating in a most peculiar way
  • David Bowie is... never at a loss for words or poses
  • David Bowie is... quite aware of what he's going through  

Acknowledging the seismic cultural impact of that famous otherworldly appearance as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops singing the single Starman on 6 July 1972 ("If we can sparkle he may land tonight!"), the exhibition rightly places it at centre stage. So many musicians and performers have cited that one appearance as the spurs to their own careers! But there are also plenty of other treasures to discover, some of which can be tracked down on Youtube:

ACMI curator Emma McRae on the 1979 Saturday Night Live performance costume, with solo artist Klaus Nomi visible as the backing singer dressed in black.

'The Mask' mime, recorded in February 1969 when Bowie was 22.

The 1984 Julien Temple short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean, which includes some deft comic acting from Bowie that would later be put to good use in his cameo in Ricky Gervais' Extras sitcom.

Finally, it's also nice to note that the exhibition cites Bowie's November 1983 Western Springs concert on the Serious Moonlight tour with around 80,000 attendees as the largest gig in per capita terms - although I'd take that with a grain of salt because you can never believe a promoter!

David Bowie Is runs at ACMI in Melbourne until 1 November 2015.

See also:
Music: Cracked Actor, 5 March 2015
MusicXmas music for people who don't like Xmas music, 23 December 2014
MusicHow Bowie came up with Aladdin Sane, 5 January 2014
MusicInsanity laughs under pressure, 9 June 2013
Music: 'Never born, so I'll never get old', 8 January 2013
Music: Sukita / Bowie exhibition, 16 September 2012
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