We accidentally got to see "David Bowie Is" at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Friday. We went there to see Rufus Wainwright sing with the Toronto Symphony, and that was amazing of course, but the David Bowie show has a magic shimmer to it in my head because of the serendipity and the utter beautiful chance of the whole thing. Bowie has a huge place in my life; he's like a planet I've revolved around many, many times, me this white-trash moon. In the seventies and early eighties, he was sometimes all I had connecting me to a place I wanted and needed to be, some glamorous kingdom in which pure feverish creativity is the very atmosphere you breath and pollute. His three "Berlin" albums (made with Brian Eno. God bless him, self-exiled in a city that is perpetually in black-and-white), Low, Lodger and Heroes, all leave a majestic space in your head, as if they were recorded before records were even created. Those three records are so out of time and so rich with eerie throbs and an aural meanness that goes beyond sentiment and toward delirium (and even a little ecstasy), you think you are in the presence of an alien god just arrived and ready to kill what he can't enslave. At least that's what it felt like being 17 years old and experiencing them for the first time. The songs on each range from moody set-pieces to ballads to honest-to-goodness rock anthems, but as a whole each of those three albums feel like they were hatched in meth-labs, home-made science that somehow creates a whole new subculture. Lodger for me especially has a sort of love-sick brilliance to it; songs like "Fantastic Voyage," "Repetition," and "Boys Keep Swinging" speak to life outside of life, satirizing and elegizing at the same time the desperate need you feel when you can't feel what you are supposed to. Lodger is the best novel I've ever read in many ways: literary and fast-paced, and almost completely plotless, but pulled forward by that sinewy, reptilian, gorgeous voice and soul.
"David Bowie Is" captures a feeling of both worship and understanding, as if a bunch of freaky good-for-nothing teenagers with a penchant for goth-rock and posing wised up and became astute curators and assessors. There's so much stuff in the show (lyrics to "Fame" on a cocktail napkin, beautiful costumes from Diamond Dogs to Labyrinth, videos (the one for "Life on Mars" is spectacularly glamorous), albums covers in a makeshift record-store corner, paperback books Bowie posed with and eventually read strung from the ceiling like birds flying into the horizon, a one-room concert-hall flashing scenes from "The Glass Spider" 1987 debacle/tour, and so on) that you'd think you'd be totally overwhelmed, but the way all the objects and ideas have been placed and contextualized you feel right at home. I almost burst into tears a couple times, especially, of course, in the rooms associated with Berlin. Someone even had the great insight to place the keys to Bowie's Berlin apartment inside a Lucite box on the wall, and the video performance of "Sense of Doubt," a really gloomy soundtrack flourish off of Heroes, is one of the most absurd and beautiful live performances you'll ever witness.
I could go on.
Museum shows often try to examine events and historical epochs through a constellation and collection of images, trying to form an abstraction based on concrete data. It's like trying to swallow a whale usually: too much "stuff," not enough meaning. In choosing to focus on one person who has an amazingly prolific and effusive history of creativity and pop-culture resonance, the curators here almost effortlessly show us the times Bowie lived in without even talking about the times he lived in. It's all show, no tell. The way he worked his magic with what he had is all we need to witness. It's not a retrospective as much as a dream of the past forty years or so. And that dream, like Bowie's music and performances and life, tells you a lot more about the way world is than actually trying to survey and "capture" it.