The exhibition here is unique in that it represents a life as art, but there are few people that can pull off such a conceit as well as David Bowie. His childhood development was covered with the requisite baby pictures and tales of his family, but the curators, opted to also dwell on the shadows that covered the young Mr. Jones’ family, with its histories of mental illness and suicide. Audio files of Bowie frankly discussing his recognition of this suggest the lad was striving to avoid the tortured ends of several family members through a process of reinvention of self. He opted instead to build his identity from materials that were available in the gray, post-war Britain he grew up in. Beatniks, artists, and the dawn of rock and roll were the grist for his [self] creative mill. By the time he was done with school at 16, he had moved into the commercial art field, only to give it up for a shot at the post-Beatles British beat boom.
The early days with the Konrads were well represented here, with several pieces of ephemera showing one of his earliest band efforts. The Lower Third got some star time as well, with the [rather good] single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” getting an airing on the audio channels. How it must relieve Mr. Bowie that his first ever released single is such a good one! But fear not. If one ever wanted to view the original lyrics to “The Laughing Gnome” it was there for the world to see! That Bowie had kept his notebooks from boyhood made an exhibition on this level possible. The level of transparency at which he has maintained his creative career has been admirable. He was never one to give his influences and muses short shrift, and many of them figure in the curation of this show.
The “Space Oddity” era was represented both by the more familiar, 1972 Mick Rock video as well as the earlier clip for the version that eventually surfaced in the short film “Love Me ‘Til Tuesday.” I had never seen the latter clip, but one viewing convinced me that Flight of the Conchords must have, since their brilliant “Bowie’s In Space” video seriously referenced this more obscure clip! Other clips of the pupal Bowie surface with excerpts from The Image” and a full mime performance, “The Mask” being included in the show.
While there were lots of artifacts and notebook pages with original lyrics on view, where the event really hit the nights was in the multimedia stagings that involved still and video projections happening in vibrant stagings along with original [or in some cases, replicated*] costumes on Bowie-masked mannequins. The “Starman” exhibit was stunning, incorporating the Top of the Pops video performance that made him an overnight star [after seven years of scrambling]. The costume he wore, stood between two mirrors at an oblique angle to seemingly spread into infinity while the video performance was kaleidoscopically mixed behind it. It’s in these set pieces that the whole of the exhibit reaches a level that can’t be rendered into two dimensional forms like books or online photos. You simply have to be there to appreciate it.
The costuming of Bowie is given a large portion of the spotlight here. The imperial period of his career [’69-’80] comes off the best, in no small part due to the brilliant costuming that Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto developed for the now Superstar artiste. This exhibit goes further, to show the hair and fashion precedents that Bowie picked from to make of his own. In many cases, earlier Yamamoto fashions were adapted for new use with Bowie and even his famous spiky red Ziggy cut was shown as being inspired by an earlier femme cut used by a Yamamoto model. Suzi Ronson [neé Fussey] was the hairdresser who actually wielded the famous scissors. The willingness to give credit where it was due was appreciated.
Next: …sound and vision