Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Thoughts on "David Bowie Is" at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Today, I attended the special exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), David Bowie Is.

Let me preface this by saying I'm a rather big Bowie fan. He was one of the first musicians I really connected with when I first got into rock music at age 8 and it's been a long, passionate love affair since. My favourite concert of all time is still when I attended his Sound and Vision tour on my fifteenth birthday with my former babysitter. Four rows from the stage, I watched him strut and fret his hour and a half upon the stage, his faithful guitarist for the tour - the amazing and incredible Adrian Belew - weeping and wailing his axe in harmony with Bowie's swoony croon.

That being said, I was rather excited when I heard that after a successful run in England, David Bowie Is was coming to Toronto.

Not wanting to be too "spoiled" by what I might see there, I went in without reading any reviews, hoping it would somehow live up to the excitement I was feeling.

It was AMAZING!!!

The exhibit is housed on the top two floors of the AGO. Upon entry, you are given a headset that you can listen to snippets of music, Bowie musings, and others discussing Mr. B. Frankly, I found it a bit of overkill after awhile. Once you get into the exhibit, there is so much to see and read, someone chattering in my ears was more distracting than helpful. Unless there was something that I definitely wanted to hear - like the audio for movie or concert clips - I pretty much left the headphones off.

Be warned - the exhibit starts slowly. The first floor has a few fun little photos (especially of a very young Davy Jones), but most of it is more about who Bowie has influenced and a few random, vaguely connected objets d'art that the AGO seemed to just plunk there to take up space...

Then, you reach the top floor.

Oh.

My.

God.

A veritable feast for the senses awaited me! The moment I stepped inside, my mind exploded in multiple Bowiegasms!

The main room is stuffed with costumes, handwritten notes, memorabilia, and various multimedia items. Television screens peek out from corners, flickering rare concert films and interviews.

Since there was just so much that one must experience firsthand, here are some of my personal highlights (in no particular order):

- My favourite, favourite thing there wasn't actually by Bowie. Housed in a small glass case was an original set of Brian Eno's infamous "Oblique Strategies" cards that helped both him and Bowie (and many other artists, including me!) find ways to be creative. There is a fun online version here so you can see for yourselves.

- The handwritten note from Jim Henson telling Bowie how great he'd be as Jareth in Labyrinth made me tear up. I didn't realize Henson had Bowie in mind when he wrote the character. In my mind, no one else could have played The Goblin King. Right underneath the note was Jareth's amazingly detailed riding crop (complete with teeny-tiny goblin heads carved into it!) AND his magic crystal ball!

- The page from a 1970s actors' handbook listing David as an up-and-coming player. Not only was Mr. B. great at music, he was also an established actor and mime!

- Hands down, the Pierrot costume from the "Ashes to Ashes" video was one of the major highlights for me. It's even more stunning in person. The detailed embroidery and beadwork is dazzling and it shimmers with an almost other-worldly iridescent blue colour.

- Runners-up for awesome costumes included the Screaming Lord Byron costume from "Jazzin' for Blue Jean." I always enjoyed the extended video/short film as a kid and loved how colourful the costume was. Much like the "Ashes to Ashes" costume, it's even more stunning in real life. Seeing all of Bowie's concert outfits and a lot of the Ziggy Stardust stuff was fantastic. There was almost TOO much to take in!

- All the lyrics written in Bowie's charming, scrawly, left-handed handwriting. I especially loved seeing his marginalia on "Fashion", which reads:

We midgets and fools should learn not to dance on concrete poured for GIANTS.

- Seeing a clip from Bowie's very first role in a tiny, short film entitled The Image. What delighted me most is that it almost seemed Lovecraftian in tone. A little like "Pickman's Model" or something similar. I'm hoping the whole thing is somewhere out in cyberspace for me to see.

- Bowie's handwritten notes on a Hunky Dory album cover that read, "David Bowie...plays the less complicated piano bits" and the reference to a then-unknown "Richard Wakeman" who played piano on the album.

- Bowie's handwritten note that read "Dada"vid Bowie.

- A very early fan letter response from David Bowie's mother who used to be in charge of writing fans back with information on her up-and-coming son. Her closing words to the fan made me grin:

Keep this letter to yourself as I do not want to be inundated with fan mail.

Margaret M. Jones - David's mum

- All of the photos/outtakes from album sessions and just about every photo in there. Bowie's Diamond Dogs outtake photos are super amazing, as are the Aladdin Sane ones. My favourite picture, though, was this shot of him from the early 70s when he was busted for possession of marijuana.

Only the Thin White Duke could look this debonair in a mugshot.

The exhibit was so huge and so amazing, I spent a good four and a half hours looking around and still could go back and look around some more! There were these really lovely "soundscapes" courtesy of Sennheiser (who make the headphones I adore!) that floated in and out of your aural consciousness. I'd find myself humming whatever song was blaring from the particular room I was perusing.

Not wanting to leave, but exhausted and hungry, I left the "concert" area of the exhibit and was spat out into a tiny gift shop area. The shop was cute, but left much to be desired in the unique gift department.

I ended up getting this cool tote bag, though:

as a memento of my amazing and wonderful day. :)

A lot of the rooms had sayings in them, "David Bowie Is...[insert end of sentence here]." When you buy something at the gift shop, they give you a little bookmark with your purchase that reads, "David Bowie is yours." D'awww.

I feel so privileged to have been able to see this amazing exhibit. Toronto is the show's second stop and it runs from now until November 27th. More info and tickets here.

David Bowie Is was well worth my $30 and I loved every minute of it!

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