Exhibition Review: David Bowie Is:

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When I was 14, David Bowie had been playing on my Discman constantly for six months and it was beginning to show. Bright blue metallic eye make-up was smeared across my face while my cheekbones and lips were accentuated with silver body glitter. A blue paisley shirt with exaggerated sleeves and collar was tucked into high waisted sky blue flares, and a midnight blue velvet waistcoat completed the look. That Saturday morning I was on my way to see a blockbuster film at Hamilton’s Village 7, and had accessorised my ensemble with the musk of op shop bargains and a jaded glint in my eyes. I had grandiosely decided that the aughties were characterised by a cookie cutter uniformity that left no room for the expression of ‘self’ and all its contradictory facets. At that stage, David Bowie represented a respite from this way of thinking, of being with his ambiguous attitude, style, and music.

Of course as I grew up I realised that the slavish imitation of one’s idols is hardly more authentic than the drones, but my love of Bowie has remained. However, upon hearing that the David Bowie Is exhibition was showing at ACMI in Melbourne, I let out a schoolgirl scream.

David Bowie Is first showed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. Since then, the exhibition has toured around the world and been seen by over 1 million people and counting.   Affectionately known as the V & A, it is an institution that explores the process and the interaction between art and design, and David Bowie Is upholds this interest.  Over 300 items from David Bowie’s personal archives were winging their way to Melbourne, and this collection was going to be added to courtesy of the ACMI curators. My tickets were booked before I had finished listening to The Man Who Sold the World. A few months later and fresh off an early morning flight, I stood at the exhibition’s entrance feeling underdressed and over excited. My gold boots were gleaming in the low lighting as I positively skipped to the front desk and handed the visitor host my ticket.

Constructing a narrative for an ornately constructed artist such as Bowie was never going to be easy. Different aspects of him speak to different people on different levels, and while each of his personas are disjointedly unique, they are all ultimately David Bowie and so one character cannot be put above another.   The V & A have realised the sheer impossibility of pinning down the man formerly known as David Jones, and this is reflected in both the exhibition’s title and opening display. Emblazoned on the wall, Bowie declares that “All art is unstable. There is no authoritative voice, only multiple meanings.” Right from the word ‘go’ the institution is effectively washing its hands of definitively pinning down who David Bowie is. In a postmodern fashion we the viewers (or voyeurs) are left to make up our own minds.

Upon entry, I was handed a set of headphones which provided me with snippets of songs, interviews and observations (including Bowie’s own jaunty tones) as I moved around this deeply immersive, multisensory exhibition that felt halfway between a rummage through a very cool closet and a nightclub. It had a charmingly cluttered layout that showed us everything Bowie had ever been- from Brixton to the streets of Soho awash with drug-fuelled creativity, the walled streets of Berlin and everything in between. This haphazard approach suited the anything-but-straightforward subject, and encourages the viewer to flit from station to station and construct their own notion of who David Bowie is. Presenting the viewer with everything all at once is an overwhelming experience. Costumes, video screens, album covers, photographs, hand written lyrics all jostle for your attention, and for a few minutes I stood dumbstruck by the sheer vibrancy of it all.

Keeping true to the aforementioned themes of the V & A, the exhibition expertly highlights the eras, processes, influences and collaborations that helped shape the many faces of David Bowie. He was inspired by a myriad of cross-cultural references-including Dada German Expressionism, Mime, Kabuki Theatre, West End Musicals and Little Richard. Powerful collaborations with an eclectic range of figures- Brian Eno, William S Burroughs, Klaus Nomi and Kansai Yamamoto also proved to be enriching for Bowie. Like a truly postmodern artist, he redefined all of these ideas to create something that was new but no less powerful. Beyond Bowie, the exhibition also highlights the impact that art, culture, and music has on society as a whole. However, just as the man himself was carefully constructed, so too was this exhibition, and I couldn’t help but note that the David Bowie of the 1980s was largely glossed over save for a few photos and music videos. His acting efforts were also confined to one small room. It was the lithe-hipped, androgynous Ziggy Stardust era that attracted the biggest crowd and the era that David Bowie Is leaned on the most.

Being in the exhibition for around three hours meant that I observed the reactions of other viewers in this exhibition which was simultaneously personal yet communal. Lightning bolts were smudged by tears as punters got up close and personal to their favourite Bowie. Strangers would start singing together and squeeze each other’s hands with excitement. I must’ve had the wobbliest grin on my face seeing Bowie’s jumpsuit that he wore for his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance because a kind attendant offered me a tissue. Fandom in relation to Bowie is an odd thing.  Generally, fans tend to like the artist’s music, as well as who they (believe) the artist to truly be. Bowie is an anomaly. He was completely disinterested in singing songs about his own experiences and presenting an image of authenticity.  But by throwing himself wholeheartedly into each persona he was not only experimenting with aesthetics, form, and a myriad of other reference points, he was also experimenting with a constantly metamorphosing sense of self- arguably something that we all do. It was authenticity on another plane.

David Bowie Is is not without its flaws- some moments are skimmed over, some questions remain unanswered- for example, how exactly did the shy David Jones get the confidence to become one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century? And we are never permitted to see David Bowie the man behind the mask. But feeling so close yet so far away from David Bowie doesn’t detract from the mysteriously feel good charm of this exhibition. David Bowie is exploring possibilities rather than reality.

This article was first published by Rip It Magazine on September 28th 2015.

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