When it was originally unveiled at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (England, not Ontario), the “David Bowie Is” exhibition shattered attendance records, selling over 42,000 advance tickets. Now that the show has come to Toronto, it’s easy to see why it was so successful. Composed of over 300 objects from David Bowie’s personal archive, spanning his entire career, the exhibit is arranged and presented as a completely immersive experience, enveloping visitors in a kaleidoscopic visual and aural landscape that would be overwhelming if it weren’t so brilliantly arranged and intelligently guided.
While many exhibitions devoted to the work and possessions of a single artist attempt to offer a behind-the-scenes view, “David Bowie Is” keeps its glitter-rimmed gaze fixed firmly on the stage. Curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh consider David Bowie’s entire public identity, both on and off the stage, to be a construct and an act of artistic expression. This is reflected in the exhibition, from the choices of objects presented to the artful way everything is arranged.
One of the most arresting parts of the exhibition is the way it dwells upon the various characters that Bowie created and performed over the course of his career. While Ziggy Stardust might be his most famous alter ego, “David Bowie Is” also highlights the other personas he assumed while writing and performing, such as The Thin White Duke, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, and The Man Who Sold The World. Costumes associated with each character are presented along with video clips from performances and music videos, as well as promotional objects, contextual notes, and sets. For example, a video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold The World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979, accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, is played next to the massive and movement-restricting costume he wore that day. Nearby are notes, which explain that Bowie’s inspiration for the performance came from dadaist artists Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball.
Woven throughout the exhibit is some information on the way Bowie’s creative process changed over time. Pages of handwritten lyrics and compositions, often with lines excised or altered, are displayed next to the finished works. Bowie’s bold, dynamic handwriting, full of loops and pressed hard into the page, gives the exhibition a feeling of intimacy, despite the drama and bombast. This look at Bowie’s writing process also demonstrates his gleeful adoption of technology. Bowie commissioned a custom piece of compositional software, the Verbasizer. It’s a kind of surrealist automatic writing machine that digests texts and spits out sentences of varying complexity based on the material fed into it.
As visually arresting as the exhibit is, a huge part of what makes “David Bowie Is” a completely absorbing experience is the audio component. Designed by Sennheiser Canada, it’s an integral part of the tour experience. Attendees are presented with a set of high-quality headphones and controls to wear throughout. Unlike the typical audio-exhibit setup, however, where museumgoers input exhibit numbers to hear pre-recorded information, in this case sounds are triggered entirely by proximity to different exhibits. Coming near a video screen allows a visitor to hear the audio that accompanies it. Approaching a costume may trigger a piece of commentary or the sound of a performance done while wearing it. Additional, in-depth explanations of certain exhibits are available at the press of a button. The experience is isolating—and even disorienting—in the best way possible, allowing the viewer to lose him or herself in the exhibit entirely.
“David Bowie Is” is a vivid and vibrant, grandly theatrical, and appropriately over-the-top retrospective of one of the most varied and dynamic careers in contemporary pop culture. Through an exploration of Bowie’s stage personas, the exhibition gives visitors many ways to complete the phrase in its title, but also gives no definitive answer. Ultimately, “David Bowie Is” is as nebulous as its subject, and that makes it a rare success.
The AGO has just announced that “David Bowie Is” will be staying open late on October 19 and 26, and on November 2, 8, 9 and 15. Rather than closing at 5:30 p.m. with the rest of the gallery, the exhibition will go until 8:30 p.m. on those days.