Unsound Vision

David Bowie Is (exhibition)

published in Real Time No.130, Sydney, 2015

Babies, drunks and grandpas all know that David Bowie flirted with the image of sex, toyed with the image of avant-gardism, and flaunted the image of mask-making. And sloths, slugs and doorknobs know that the promotion of imagery within music has remained a contentious issue ever since 18thC aesthetes worked hard to ingrain the neo-Classical ideal that each art form should be pure unto itself and seek to attain its own ontological plateau of perfection. The 2013 Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition assembled from David Bowie’s Archive–pretentiously titled David Bowie Is–presents its findings as if Bowie invented the cultural brazing of sound and vision.

The exhibition charts how Bowie intuitively cross-hatched theatrical bricolage with persona politics, and continued to ‘revolutionise’ mediarised music production across four decades. Maybe he did. But Bowie—the slut of the sonic, the tart of the textual—ripped into popular music by ripping off the late 60s vintage mania of second hand clothing emporium styles which bloomed from Haight-Ashbury to Carnaby Street. Well before the cut-ups of Gautier/Goude, Westwood/McLaren and Bowie/Burretti, you had Jimi Hendrix looking like an Afrocentric culture-clash torn from a Napoleonic oil painting; Janis Joplin looking like a Texan bar maiden mashed up with a desert-distressed Art Nouveau poster for Absinthe. Bowie levered himself from the gauche posturing of 60s transhistorical image-mining wherein heroic rock icons were self-constructed by looking as much into their mirror as at their audience.

You wouldn’t know this from surveying the mothballing multi-media catwalk of David Bowie Is. The through-line has been so thoroughly self-determined that most visitors feel happy to be corralled by the fawning narrative and its eponymous creator’s prescience. But let’s scrutinize this thin white historical thread between Bowie’s imagineered past and our mediarised present: I for one think Bowie should be prosecuted if his flagrant manipulation of ‘image’ begat the likes of Bjork, Beck, Lady Gaga, Bonnie Prince Billy, Amy Whitehouse, Marilyn Manson, Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave. Counter to their salacious embrace of artifice, the arch meaningfulness of those artists synchs more to Bowie’s dilettantish works than to his sporadic inspired works. Yes, it’s great to still be stung by the spine-tingling inappropriateness and halted eroticism of the alien visages of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thomas Jerome Newton et al, but there has been a far greater proportion of pale zeitgeist surfing in Bowie’s career.

As a teen Bowie fan of a near ridiculously high order, I have long noted Bowie’s contorted flips between crazed insight and embarrassing output. Standing in the rain eight rows back from the front at the infamous MCG concert of 1979 in Melbourne, I distinctly remember thinking by the third song that everything about the event was unexciting and weirdly insignificant—from his lame fisherman’s pants to the rank arrangements circa Stage to a god awful PA system only a footballer would appreciate. More so, I was struck by the yawning gulf between Bowie’s ‘sound and vision’ and the ugly reality of how it was broadcast, staged, reported, rendered and transmitted. This was reverse Warholian logic, wherein Bowie’s audiovision—the image of music he fabricated and the melange of sonic styles he orchestrated—fully lived up to the empty stylishness of his gestural actions. Warhol transformed the abject banal into hyper art; Bowie often reversed the flow.

David Bowie Is notably gained access to the David Bowie Archive, but it feels like the V&A marketing department has shaped the exhibition more than its curators. What we get is: (i) a belaboured audio narrative forging a didactic trail; (ii) an over-designed theatrical presentation of artefacts; and (iii) a cynical and superfluous bombardment of TV screens. Yes, I get it: Bowie is image. Yet while the exhibition presents an amazing array of original costumes (those by Burretti and Yamamoto are stunning), it tarts them up as ‘image’ rather than ‘object’. Some are stashed 6 metres up behind faux-telescreen grating and flashing ‘concert’ lights. Meanwhile, the exhibition’s hefty catalogue contains sumptuous pristine photos of all the key costumes on display; the book makes them look more actual than the exhibition.

David Bowie Is critically ignores the chance to materialise the fabric of Bowie’s key transformative stage personae, and to give physical museographic presence to Bowie’s costumery which has become so dematerialised, photocopied and hyper-imaged as to become nullified and tokenistic. While the exhibition adopts the uniquely British rhetoric of The Independents Group who inaugurated pop-as-culture in post-war Britain back in 1956 with their ground-breaking exhibition of Pop Art This Is Tomorrow, it falls into the 19thC pit of artist-as-myth. Treating Bowie this way now does no service to anyone but bourgeoisie journalists and media teachers.

Bowie thought he was channelling Warhol, Burroughs, Dali, Duchamp, Schiele and Wilde, but he came nowhere near them in terms of concept, execution and innovation. David Bowie Is believes he was all those figures combined—without admitting to the delusional drug-laced phantasms conjured by Bowie between 1971 and 1978, which historically and culturally frame that brethren. If the exhibition had, it would haven taken a leaf from the revealing hardback tome of Mick Rock’s iconic photos (Moonage Daydream, 2002). His stupendous archive of photos proves that the amazing polysexual trans-alien pseudomorphic looks of Bowie start with the Haddon Hall red spiky cut of 1971 and peaks with that look’s gaudy atrophy by the time of the Diamond Dogs publicity shots of 1974.

More importantly, the Moonage Daydream images are trailed by a ruminating text by Bowie, who was recorded looking through Mick Rock’s archive. His casual reminisces were transcribed and edited into a running commentary. It’s a weird text: an oral account of Bowie looking into the mirrors of his past. (Numerous times this text is footnoted in the David Bowie Is exhibition catalogue.) Yet not once does Bowie provide an interesting critical context of his self images: quite the opposite, he seems gripped by Wildean self-loathing. David Bowie Is silences that flippant voice, and instead broadcasts a hagiographic construction of Bowie on par with his own messianic concoctions.

Back in 2002 when the Moonage Daydream book was released, Glam Rock was derided, not lauded. Bowie’s mind was elsewhere: in 1998, he had launched BowieNet. A subscription-based fan-exploiting start-up venture, it was far more embarrassing than Glam’s glitter, with its Kai Power Tools design and insipid information-commodity-speak peppering its copy. It came one year after the outrageous stunt wrought by ‘rock and roll investment broker’ David Pullman who in 1997 marketed Bowie celebrity bonds, through the advent of securitizing an artist’s royalties to enable said artist to self-fund future projects across the forthcoming decade.

David Bowie Is markets itself as if everything is grounded in the Ziggy/Aladdin/Diamond era Mick Rock fortuitously documented, but attempts to stretch that innovative sound and vision too far. Ultimately, the exhibition is a museographic version of the now defunct Bowie Bonds. As such, it sits well in the new millennial climate of atomised rock and pop culture. From Target launching Keanne Duffy’s bland range of post-Glam Bowie-inspired clothes (2007), to the Aladdin Sane face gracing Brixton Pound’s 10 legal tender note (2011), David Bowie really is all that too.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Victoria & Albert Museum, ACMI, David Bowie Archives