The Art Gallery of Ontario, deftly following up on its Surreal Things show, has tapped into London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s rampage of a show, a wild and wonderful bundle of entities, pertaining to singer/songwriter PLUS, David Bowie (b. 1947). Like stumbling upon a fun house that fights your instincts to concentrate in calm, this friendly assault is more of a challenge than most of us had bargained for.
Just as Elvis, leaving the building, was not for those content to stay parked on their ass, Bowie was extraordinarily injected with the blaze that was rock and roll. Unlike Elvis, though, he, at a very early age, recognized that to stay entirely with that branch of high-calorie concertizing was to soon get fat and old. Bowie started lean and hungry and that disposition has sustained his cruising speed throughout the journey. Though apparently a great reader and connoisseur of early twentieth century German Expressionism, his forays into the avant-garde most pointedly derived from a stint with the theatre company of mime-extraordinaire, Lindsay Kemp, whose devotion to Paris-suffused “decadence” (which is to say, being at odds with the bloated materiality and bankrupt idealism of mainstream world history) turned many heads for a few years.
From a baseline of rock and roll, then, our drive-by Surrealist could embrace uncanniness in fields like film, fashion and graphic design. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing we can do…” brings us to a matter of distemper that his colleagues—and he himself—have seen fit to elaborate upon.
The incisiveness and range of Bowie’s invention of costumes and roles is unprecedented in popular music.
The persona of Ziggy Stardust most directly and comprehensively explored and conveyed an androgynous presence as bringing to bear a form of kinetic power both subversive and seductive. (From this 1970s era, motifs like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn began to surface in various forms and venues.)
Not surprisingly, for a performer with such visual magnetism, Bowie did find his way into movies. But working within someone else’s vision did not not show him at his best.
I think one of his greatest contributions is in movies alright; but on the soundtracks of many deep, dark, iconic and joyous creations. For instance, his lighting a fire under the home stretch of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, by way of his “Cat People,” is unforgettable!