Behold, you pretty things, Mr. David Bowie. Discoverer of insulin! Inventor of the telephone! The first man to walk on w ater and the moon! I know, I know: Frederick Banting, Alexander Graham Bell, Jesus Christ and Neil Armstrong claim precedence for each of those feats. But spend enough time at David Bowie Is, the spectacular, bewildering “multi-sensory collision” going up this week at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and you’ll leave thinking that the former David Robert Jones, born Jan. 8, 1947 in London, could have done all those things and a heckuvalot more had he decided not to rein in his ambitions to become only, in the words of the exhibition catalogue, “one of the most important artists of the last 50 years.”
Exhibition, in fact, is too modest a word to describe what’s happening the next two months on the top two floors of the AGO’s contemporary art centre. Fresh from its record-setting run at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, David Bowie Is is nothing less than an act of exaltation. And the 300 artifacts on view, culled largely from Bowie’s own immense archives – costumes! videos! paintings! lyric sheets! the boots he wore as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ! photos! a 1976 Telefax from Elvis! suits! journals! the very tiny spoon he used to snort cocaine in 1974!– are nothing less than articles of faith. Indeed, faith seems to be what Bowie wants from his followers these days. The man himself has become almost wholly ghost-like in the machinery of his own fame, announcing in January, without fanfare, tweets or live appearances, The Next Day, his first collection of new songs in 10 years, while eschewing any publicity for the V&A show and promising same for its AGO berth, Is’s only Canadian stop.
Early in his career, Bowie declared he wasn’t “content just writing songs . . . It has to be three-dimensional.” Hence, his interest in theatre, mime, the mannequin-like pose, fashion, makeup. All of which is another way of explaining why visitors to the AGO are encountering David Bowie Is and not, say, Bruce Springsteen: Authentic Bard of the American Working Class. This three-dimensionality extends not to just what you experience – be it the famous vinyl bodysuit from the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour that’s the starting point of the exhibition or the saxophone Bowie played in his younger days or the vitrines of stuff on both floors or the cubes dangling from the ceiling upon which images of influences are projected (Judy Garland, Yukio Mishima) – but how it’s experienced. Before entering the exhibition, each visitor is given a Sennheiser guidePORT audio pack with headphones that you’re asked to wear for the duration of your visit. As you wander the exhibition’s black-and-white hallways, sensors on the walls trigger a potpourri of song and commentary, analysis and, in some instances, reminiscences by Bowie himself. (At one point, he intones, “There’s some tenuous link that goes through the work I’m doing” but offers no further explication.)
Immersive? You bet – but also quite disorienting, irritating even. I found it rather a relief to come at last to the in situ gift shop where one could doff the headphones and buy a Ziggy Stardust coffee mug ($9.95) or a silicone spatula shaped like a guitar ($20) in relative peace. Irritating, too, is the plethora of didactics throughout the show. I’m all for information and context but the information here is much too clever and fussy (although I was intrigued to discover Bowie auditioned for the London production of Hair and for his first try-out at the BBC, sang Chim Chim Cher-ee from Mary Poppins) and not particularly helpful in navigating a visitor through a milieu that’s often labyrinthine. Also how edifying is it to stare at the menu of a Berlin restaurant frequented by Bowie and Iggy Pop in the mid-1970s or the Japanese poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey or a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ? No wonder Bowie’s personal collection is said to number more than 80,000 things. Dude’s not only a magpie in terms of interests and sensibility but a packrat to boot.
Bowie always has been a sort of nowhere man, elusive and allusive, even when he walked more conspicuously among us. Before Bowie, pop musicians and their music came from somewhere, some space. There was the Beatles in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, Elvis at Sun studios in Memphis, the Stones at the Crawdaddy in London, the Grateful Dead at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom, Marvin Gaye hanging with Berry Gordy at Motown in Detroit. Bowie’s art, by contrast, has been a space oddity. If anything, as the AGO’s career-spanning presentation demonstrates, it’s come from the inner space of his catholic sensibility. One measure of Bowie’s particular pop genius is that, certainly in his 1971-1980 heyday, he knew it was more important to be “a trendy person rather than a trend.” If anyone was going to discard a look, sound, ethos or persona, it would be Bowie himself; no way was he going to delegate his obsolescence to the fickleness of fans.
In the end, one person’s dross is another’s treasure. David Bowie Is is a supremely interesting show, one even non-Bowiephiles will admit presents a persuasive case for the man as pop’s greatest artificer. You can get lost here, in the best sense of that term.