DAVID BOWIE: Artist in Review

MAD museum celebrates David Bowie with a retrospective on the multifaceted performer.

Words: Mariama Primus
Images: Courtesy of Virgin Records US/EMI

Aside from being the devoted husband of beautiful Somalian model, Iman, for 19 years, 64 year-old David Bowie is best known for his adaptability. A musician, actor, arranger, songwriter, and most notably, a pioneer of the glam-rock era during the ‘70s, Bowie constant creative reinvention across a range of musical styles (pop, funk, metal, industrial, blue-eyed soul) and platforms have strengthened his voice over the years as a supreme advocate for artistic freedom.

Enter the Museum of Art and Design, which recently launched a retrospective exhibition, appropriately titled, David Bowie, Artist, to highlight Bowie’s genuine artistry while journeying through the most innovative transitions of his career.

“David Bowie’s diverse work has continued to be a vastly influential force on the cultural landscape for over five decades,” says Jake Yuzna, the curator of the public program. “Too often overshadowed by the context of the music industry, Bowie’s practice has shattered constraining definitions of an artist. It is with great pleasure that we at MAD can present such a invaluable body of work in a similar innovative spirit in which it was created.”

While the exhibit is a retrospective and touches on the extensive discography of the British rockstar (25 studio albums, 9 live albums, 46 compilation albums, five extended play EPs, 108 singles, three soundtracks, 13 video albums and 47 music videos), what’s most interesting is that it expertly embodies the breadth of Bowie’s experimentation over the years, which ironically lends itself to current trends in popular culture today. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bowie’s promotional videos were considered groundbreaking, a strategy that modern artists are just getting the hang of. Bowie’s theatrical concert performances were highly acclaimed, another segment of an artist’s portfolio that newcomers are have yet to fully grasp—Beyoncé, Kanye and Lady Gaga aside.

And when it comes to diversifying, Bowie trumped them all. He maintained quite a presence in theater, receiving high praise for his take as the lead character in the Broadway Theater production of Elephant Man, playing the part 157 times between 1980 and 1981. On-screen he held down the role of the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 puppet flick, Labrynth, played the white-haired, pop-art god, Andy Warhol, alongside Jeffery Wright in Basquiat (1996), as well as the other select films to be screened as part of the exhibition.

A natural shape-shifter and born rebel, at 17, David Bowie (then David Robert Jones) became the founder of “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men,” after being frustrated at the societal response of his decision (and young men like him) to wear their hair beyond 9-inches long. Shortly after, he decided performance art was his mode of expression and that he was a “mime trapped in a man’s body. (Hence his training as an avant-garde theater mime under Lindsay Kemp.) At 18, yet another rebirth, where he would become a Buddhist monk, a decision for which he was quoted mocking himself: “I was a Buddhist monk, trapped in a mime’s body.”

Three years after the release of his first album Space Oddity, which coincided with the first moon landing, the then struggling artist emerged with a new alter ego and his most prolific to date, Ziggy Stardust, Messiah Alien Rockstar. His hair now fiery red, accented by striking makeup and eye-catching costumes, Bowie coupled all of his artistic leanings to give life to Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous sex symbol. On stage, his fusion of rock and roll, spoken word, Kabuki theater, mime techniques and over-the-top visuals took Bowie’s vivid storytelling beyond the set boundaries of individuality and sexuality.

These were just a few of the many identities of Bowie and certainly not the last. Whether he was Davy Jones (a name he initially performed under before shedding it because of the more famous Davey Jones from the Monkees), David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke (circa 1975), what Bowie recognized early in himself, as the MAD retrospective does well at conveying, is that his thirst for reinvention, at best, was his ultimate response to a need for change in his personal life and the cultural world at large. Through the power of expression, Bowie was able to create vehicles of his own device to be heard on all levels.

Consisting of interactive media kiosks, a series of film screenings featuring the artist— Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Hunger (1983), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Labyrinth (1986), The Linguini Incident (1991), Basquiat (1996), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), and accompanying photos of the artist’s work on display, the exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design remains open until July 7, 2011.

Images courtesy of Virgin Records US/ EMI.

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