What to expect from ACMI's David Bowie Is... exhibition
Everyone has a Bowie moment.
My husband’s was in 1983 when David Bowie was unceremoniously hauled from the back seat of his car.
Oliver was dozing in the driver’s seat of his 1971 beige-coloured Mercedes 200, parked in front of a Hamburg nightclub, not too far from the amphitheatre where Bowie would perform the next day.
In a likely attempt to slip his entourage, at 2am the Thin White Duke jumped into the back, thinking it was a German taxi. (He was not successful.)
Mine also was in 1983, at high school. My friend slapped a homemade cassette of Hunky Dory in my hand demanding I “give up that Aussie Crawl shit and listen to some decent music.”
It was the dying days of Year 12. Fingers smudged in blue biro, she’d just finished hand-drawing the cover and was en route to detention for taking a day off to see Bowie’s Serious Moonlight concert in Melbourne.
The only way she could make this ignominy worthwhile was to recruit a convert.
Thoughts like these and others about Bowie - his otherworldly beauty, the magnificence of his music and towering influence over my life - washed over me as I waited in line to see the V&A’s travelling exhibition, David Bowie Is.
I was in Berlin, the city regarded as the artist’s ‘spiritual home’, at a museum just around the corner from where Bowie recorded his famed ‘Berlin trilogy’ (Low, Heroes and Lodger). I was a stone’s throw from the site of the East-Berlin guard tower that inspired epic song, 'Heroes'.
In a queue of 100 strangers, behind a guy dressed in Glass Spider 1987 attire (jumpsuit, mullet-ponytail, shoulder-padded overcoat), I imagined those around me to be doing the same.
It was all very Wings Of Desire: you could feel the thoughts fluttering by. We were all quietly contemplating our respective memories and relationships with Bowie: the man, the rebel, his music, performances and personas, delivered over five prodigious decades of brilliance and experimentation.
And, what might be on the other side of those gallery doors…
David Bowie Is… Vision
Music, fashion, theatre, art, identity, technology, aesthetics. This labyrinthine, multi-room exhibition explores all of this, with Bowie the all-important pivot-point.
The V&A curators clearly had a field day plundering David Bowie’s extensive personal archive, to which they had “unprecedented access”. We see everything from scribbled lyrics and storyboard sketches, to instruments and an inveterate cocaine spoon. (Bowie wouldn’t be out of place on Hoarders.)
Over 300 objects, films, videos, photographs, 50+ costumes, memorabilia and ephemera are carefully placed/projected on walls, under glass, inside booths and on stages.
Partners “from the world of theatre and opera” were engaged to stage and design it. The result is a kind of ‘archaeological dig meets nightclub’ experience, an immersive, interactive Bowie fever-dream in which you can lodge for ages.
David Bowie Is… Sound
Hi-tech headsets plug you into a “geo-located” soundtrack, triggered in proximity to each exhibit. Audio fragments of interviews, music and performances automatically play around the melange of video screens, stages and installations.
The soundtrack guides you: it’s like plugging into a parallel Bowie universe with a live-streamed mash up in your ears.
Bowie’s voice is literally inside your head, his singing, mellifluous speaking voice, others speaking about him. You become part of his world and he becomes part of you. It’s an intimate pathway into the artist’s perspective and retrospective.
As one fan remarks at the end of Hamish Hamilton and Katy Mullan’s excellent documentary about the exhibition, the only thing that wasn’t there was David Bowie.
He kind of was: you couldn’t get much closer to him than this.
David Bowie Is… Raw Power
You don’t have to be a Bowie fan to enjoy it.
British artist Jeremy Deller observed that David Bowie Is, “is as much about the influence of culture and music and art upon us as a society - and on an individual - as it is about David Bowie.” He’s right. It’s a celebration of the eras in which Bowie worked, and those he worked with.
Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mick Rock, William Burroughs, Marlene Dietrich, Lindsay Kemp, Derek Boshier, Nicolas Roeg, Brian Eno… Before collaboration was common Bowie partnered with a dazzling array of artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers. They are acknowledged in no uncertain terms.
Curated local content, gigs, talks and a dedicated Bowie Channel are part of the Melbourne leg, to highlight Bowie’s footprint in the new host city.
David Bowie Is… The Man Who Sold The World
I wept three times in David Bowie Is.
Firstly, seeing the video of his 1972 Top Of The Pops 'Starman' performance. It was glam ‘baby Bowie’ the moment his star was born. When he laughs and slings his arm around Mick Ronson – surrounded by a stage of sweet, pimply teenagers – I was a goner.
Secondly, watching the 1978 BBC interview in which Bowie describes getting into “a lot of emotional and spiritual trouble” in LA. It’s candid and sad. We almost lost him.
Lastly, in a cavernous room of huge projection screens, dwarfed by live concert footage and rocking out to 'Rebel Rebel'. Ziggy, The Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack – they were all there.
Those hundred other strangers were all there too. I looked around to realise that again we were united in a common experience, all secretly smiling about being this close to the man who sold the world.
You’re Not Alone
While David Bowie Is is a communal experience it’s also deeply personal. You’re given permission to reflect upon your own identity. It’s profound.
It’s what you bring to this exhibition that counts.
Dragging my own Bowie-music-love-devotion halfway around the world as I had, I emerged from David Bowie Is overwhelmed, inspired and a bigger Bowie fan than ever.
So had my fellow pony-tailed pilgrim, the Glass Spider lookalike. As I blinked under the gargantuan Aladdin Sane poster in the foyer, I spotted him at the exhibition’s entrance, lining up to go again.