David Bowie Is…
… the name of the exhibit devoted to Bowie which is currently showing in Toronto. It bears all the hallmarks of a show originally curated by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which is to say heavy on the costumes and distinctly and proudly British.
I have always been a so-so, take-it-or-leave-it Bowie fan, fond of a handful of early works, but rather inclined to let the more burlesque stuff go. I was vastly surprised, then, to find myself loving this exhibition so much and coming away with a newfound appreciation for the man and his art.
The first time I knew something very good was afloat was early on in the show, when all of a sudden the obligatory headset one wears around one’s neck kicked in and made sense as an integral part of what has been designed to be a truly multi-media presentation. Whatever makes the individual headsets work, really works; the audio feed comes in crisp and clear and perfectly in synch with whatever you’re standing in front of.
Stepping into the “Space Oddity” room, you are assailed with the sound of the song and video, at once as familiar as the back of your hand yet completely new: hearing the song on headphones brought it suddenly into focus as a multi-layered stereo masterpiece. This, combined with the visual of the video playing behind a holographic earthrise (the famous 1972 photo) floating in the darkness of the room said more without words than any wall-mounted gallery plaque ever could. I understood, perhaps properly for the first time, what a rush it must have been to experience stereophonic sound to a generation used to mono. I thought of Chris Hadfield’s recent recreation of the song from actual space, and how it brought this one melody full circle.
Also from this era was the “Starman” room, which was given over entirely to a large screen playing Bowie’s seminal 1972 Top of the Pops performance. What struck me most was how good a singer Bowie is — and how fantastic Top of the Pops was back when artists actually sang. I was only little, but I distinctly remember seeing this at the time.
There is a lot to see. There is so much to see that to do it justice you need to visit twice. Perhaps this is why it was so packed, and why they have to time entrances. The overarching feeling I got was that both Bowie and the exhibit were incredibly erudite; seeing Bowie’s career laid out allows one to appreciate the entire arc of an artist at work; the movements between phases and constructs made sense. Seeing the stage costumes was startling not only for how familiar they were, but for how thin a man he is.
By far the emotional highlight, costume-wise, was Alexander McQueen’s union jack greatcoat, made when McQueen was just starting out. The tailoring is impeccable and daring, and it’s shocking to see it is deliberately shredded with holes. Seen from the back, it reconfigures both the flag (and the idea of nation it represents) and the man. It’s astonishing.
Although the exhibit does into detail, covering every aspect of Bowie’s output, it does shy away from the mid-80’s Let’s Dance / China Girl era — perhaps in favor of the more interesting Germanic influences that informed the Thin White Duke.
As you approach the end of the exhibit, you come into a vast room dominated by a giant screen on each of three walls, which play a variety of concert footage. Behind the screens are banks of costumes one can see when the lights come up. The sound you hear depends upon what direction you’re facing, so that if you move around, different things become apparent. The curators have utilized this technology very well here: in one sequence, “Heroes” plays from three different eras; early, from Live Aid, and from the 911 benefit — yet the sound is synched so that no matter which version you’re listening to you can “see” him singing all three at once. Another sequence aligns all three screens to make you feel as if you are on stage at a single show.
I left the exhibition in a daze, completely overloaded with sights and sounds. Well worth seeing if you’re close to its next stop.