‘David Bowie Is’

An extraordinary multimedia exhibition chronicles the Thin White Duke’s evolution over time, and keeps the music front and centre.

If you were born at a certain point in history, you probably have one of a handful of ways of having first approached the music and essential being of David Bowie. My own self, a child of the 70s, I didn’t really get a full appreciation of what was on offer until I hear the hits from 1983’s Let’s Dance (the title track, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’), then saw the film Labyrinth in 1986, and then had the dubious distinction of having seen the man live for the first time in 1987.

The Glass Spider tour was somewhat dubious in that it was a large spectacle of a thing, a tour to promote the release of his 1987 album Never Let Me Down – an album which featured a handful of singles, which were (in retrospect) fine, but as an album, it ranks pretty low among the Bowie canon. The man himself describes it, thus: “My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album.”

The thing was, it was enough for this 12 year old to become quietly obsessed (and a real treat that one’s first ever live gig is David Bowie). A Christmas gift that year of the Serious Moonlight tour on VHS introduced me to his back catalogue proper, and from there on it was just a matter of time before what the man got up to from the early 70s onwards became the stuff of analysis, admiration and minor obsession. For me, my favourite track was ‘Young Americans’. For whatever reason, Microsoft used ‘Heroes’ to promote their latest operating system in the 90s. And any number of film makers have used some of his hits to bring various scenes to life. You want pure joy?

Check out Greta Gerwig dancing down a New York street to ‘Modern Love’ in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

Joy.

This extraordinary exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London gives some measure of insight into that which inspires Bowie in his creative process, from his early days in the late 60s, advocating for the rights of men with long hair, to experimental film making, art, paining and costume through Kubrick’s 2001 and its influence on his first hit ‘Space Oddity’, the evolution of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and every other permutation. Costume, style, makeup, performance; the lyrics to his songs – they’re all on show. Notably absent for the most part are those ‘lesser’ works as an artist. Much of what he did in the mid-late 80s barely gets a guernsey (we see video clips for ‘Blue Jean’ and the costume for that clip; Never Let Me Down doesn’t get much chop. Tin Machine is essentially glossed over, as is 1993’s Black Tie White Noise).

I was in two minds about this: one, if it’s a chronicle of the man’s career, you can’t pick and choose what parts of the career to ignore, even if there are some component parts which don’t pass artistic muster. It’s all there for dissection, surely? But, two, we have limited space and more should be given to the successes, of which there were many. Probably better to have his Dada-esque costume from a performance of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ from a 1979 episode of SNL than the armchair in which he was lowered onto the stage during the Glass Spider tour.

As an exhibition space, it’s excellent – visually captivating and incorporates technology into the audio component that is ‘intuitive’. You move from one section to the next and it knows what it is you’re watching, so changes what you’re listening to. A selection of five or six video monitors towards the end of the show have a selection of his film clips over time, from ‘Ashes to Ashes’, wherein he’s playing about with brand new in-camera technology (it’s cute because it’s so very, very dated), to the decidedly, unpleasantly racist video for ‘China Girl’, and the stylistic (very much of its time) visuals for 1995’s ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’, and then the 2013 ‘out there’ celebration/deconstruction of suburban complacency and celebrity in ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’. The thing that makes the most impression is the fact that this show is the quintessential example of ‘multimedia’. It’s really quite spectacular.

One then exits through the gift shop, where Every. Single. Item on sale is between two to three times more costly than it should be. $50 t-shirts, etc. Pffft.

Beyond the style and the visuals are some very important social points his presence and persona made throughout the years – Bowie’s sexuality, used as a means of artistic expression, or the notions of androgyny being found throughout stands as historic and important. Here was someone bringing such marginal notions into a very public, very mainstream forum – doing a great deal of legwork in making what was once considered deviant into the mainstream.

But the art is what matters most. Unlike his would-be successors in the art-as-pop space, wherein the characterisations, the stage craft and costuming is as much a part of the act as the music is (you might think Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson to a lesser degree), the music stands the test of time. The album art for Diamond Dogs is weird and out there, but the title track remains a solid rock track more than 40 years after the fact. ‘Starman’ remains a great song. Much like ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Suffragette City’ and the trans anthem ‘Rebel Rebel’. Under the gloss and supposed glamour of the Gagas and Cyruses, the music doesn’t really pass muster. There’s talent there, but the songs will have to overcome their artistic mediocrity if they are to be treated kindly by history. Live footage of Bowie singing ‘Heroes’ at the 2001 Concert for New York City shows that no matter what the guise – or disguise – the music is what matters most.

Whichever hashtag may be trending now, but Bowie is forever.

David Bowie Is will feature at ACMI in Melbourne until early November. 

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