Fill in the blank: David Bowie is…

There are endless possible answers and some of the most creative ones are displayed throughout the David Bowie Is exhibit currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, theatre and performance curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum, spoke at a keynote last Saturday night to celebrate the Canadian launch of the exhibit. Marsh spoke passionately about the iconic pop star in his speech. He focused on the question of why Bowie matters. “Bowie showed that anybody can be anybody,” he said. Marsh emphasized that Bowie’s influence can be seen in numerous places in pop culture today—for example, Lady Gaga built her extremely loyal fan base of “little monsters” partly by encouraging them to just be themselves.

Broackes described the unique curation process. With literally tens of thousands of items to choose from, the curators selected some 300 pieces. They sought to create a non-linear, non-traditional way of displaying the items. David Bowie drew inspiration from theatre and performance art throughout his career and Broackes wanted this to be reflected in the exhibit.

Broackes and Marsh insisted that one of the qualities that makes Bowie so extraordinary is his control over his image throughout his career. Bowie produced, wrote, designed, and collaborated with artists, photographers, makeup artists, and filmmakers to create his own unique art. He controlled his projects from start to finish. Some of the things he drew inspiration from include Berlin, Orwell’s 1984, Eastern fashion, and mime, to name a few.

The multi-disciplinary nature of this exhibit highlights Bowie’s chameleon-like transformations throughout his career, as the viewer’s eye travels from Ziggy Stardust to Diamond Dogs to Major Tom. Each room embodies multiple different conclusions to the sentence “David Bowie is…” Over 50 costumes are displayed. Through the glass, you can spot cigarette burns in the fabric of the iconic Union Jack coat from the cover of Earthlings. Mannequins were constructed specifically to present the costumes, since they had to approximate Bowie’s slim 26-inch waist and fashion a high instep arch for the multiple pairs of platform and high-heeled shoes. Projections of Bowie’s performances and tours grace small and large screens throughout the exhibit. Other items include pages of lyrics with Bowie’s own scribbles and notes in the margins, props from his films, all of his original album covers, candid photographs, and old fan letters. Bowie’s favourite books dangle suspended from the ceiling by wire.

Accompanying this entire exhibit is an auditory experience. Visitors can choose to wear a headset that plays Bowie’s music, interview snippets, and academic commentary as you approach different displays.

David Bowie Is runs until November 27 at the AGO.

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