ABOVE: New David Bowie exhibit opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Rob Leth reports.
TORONTO – Encompassing the malleable career of the chameleonic pop icon David Bowie was no simple task.
The Art Gallery of Ontario’s set-to-launch exhibition David Bowie Is amounts to an exhaustive treasure-trove of more than 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive, including rare artifacts of both a personal and professional nature that offer a fascinating window into the influential Brit with a gift for constant reinvention.
Those pieces were selected from David Bowie’s personal archive — home to more than 75,000 objects — and sifting through that mountain of material gave curator Victoria Broackes (working with Geoffrey Marsh) new insight into the 66-year-old legend.
“I didn’t know that he had created those images very much himself, that he controlled every aspect of his production. I had no idea how hard he worked — that was really a revelation,” Broackes said Tuesday at a press preview of the two-floor exhibit.
“He does directly control every aspect of what he produces — and that’s not just the music, it’s also the costumes, the stage sets, right down to the merchandise that goes on tour with him.”
Of course, much evidence of Bowie’s tireless eye for detail is on offer at the AGO exhibit, which opens to the public Wednesday and runs through Nov. 27.
It’s a multimedia presentation that seeks to guide visitors (strapped with headsets that filter in strains of Bowie’s music and bits of commentary) through a narrative, not one necessarily constructed in chronological order.
Still, his early life is represented through some compelling artifacts: set, costume and poster designs for his first bands, including the Kon-rads; a 1965 letter confirming Bowie’s name change from David Jones, inspired by his desire to distance himself from the similarly named Monkees musician; and the 1966 seven-inch single “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” by David Bowie and the Lower Third, representing the first time he recorded under his now-famous stage name.
Those fascinated by Bowie’s relentless boundary-pushing as a gender-twisting fashion icon will also be well-served. Dozens of his most memorable items of clothing are on display, including the Kansai Yamamoto-designed structural striped bodysuit for the “Aladdin Sane” tour, Natasha Korniloff’s silvery Pierrot costume worn in the “Ashes to Ashes” video and the self-designed tattered gold frock Bowie created for his 50th birthday celebrations.
ABOVE: Watch photographer Mick Rock on The Morning Show talking about shooting stars like David Bowie.
Similarly astounding pieces from Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and Freddie Burretti are also included. In fact, the real challenge was not rounding up fascinating ensembles, but finding mannequins skinny enough to match Bowie’s frame — during his heyday, organizers said, the slender singer had a 26.5-inch waistline.
For Bowie fans more interested in his music than his sartorial sense, the collection teems with lyric sheets that allow a look inside Bowie’s meticulous creative process. The rock innovator has collected musical ideas in notebooks since the ’60s, so no era of his ever-shifting career is ignored. Presented next to lyrics from his 1972 glam-rock commercial breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, for instance, are snippets of ideas scrawled on several scraps of paper with slogans such as “hit record,” “parents viewpoint” and “out hipping them.”
Other ephemera rounded up for the exhibit included a tissue blotted with Bowie’s lipstick from 1974 and the mug shots from Bowie’s 1976 Rochester, N.Y., arrest for marijuana possession.
Although Broackes was loath to suggest one must-see piece, she did nod toward the creative materials created for Bowie’s ambitious 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. The influential $250,000 show, which tied into the concept record’s dystopian-future theme and set an early standard for outsized production values at a rock concert, is represented with an intricate set model, touring costumes and Bowie’s colourful storyboards for a proposed companion film musical.
“I think that was very exciting just to think that after this huge and really draining tour, Bowie is immediately onto something, he’s onto something in a different genre, something he’s not yet himself proficient in — but that doesn’t stop him,” said Broackes.
“And that’s the great thing about Bowie: he doesn’t allow himself to be pigeon-holed by other people’s expectations. He does what he wants to do artistically.”
Toronto is only the second stop for David Bowie Is after its initial showing at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, with more presentations to come in Sao Paulo, Berlin, Paris and Chicago.
Although Bowie opened his archive for the exhibit, he gave organizers no instructions on which materials to use and never actually spoke to either curator. The New York-based singer is famously averse to flying, which led AGO director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum to hope aloud Tuesday that perhaps Bowie will make the comparatively short trip up to Toronto to view the exhibit in person.
“We really hope he’ll come here. It’s looking so great we hope he’ll make the journey himself,” echoed Broackes.
“It must be amazing to see all your objects that are your own objects and are all about your life put out on public display, and see people poring over them with such interest,” she added later.
“It must be a very surreal experience.”
© The Canadian Press, 2013