Review / Short Read

Looking Back at Bowie (With the Help of a Local Bowie Exhibition)

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Bowie-inspired art by various Adelaide artists at the Urban Cow Studio. Photo Credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis.

Last month, the Urban Cow Studio hosted an exhibition of David Bowie inspired works, featuring pieces of various mediums from a selection of local Adelaide artists. It was one of a few tributes happening in Adelaide at the time, which itself was part of the torrent of tributes from across the globe, even a month after Bowie’s death. His impact as an icon of pop culture was until recently subdued but deep set, recently revived following a late-career renaissance of two final albums that capitalised on his disappearance from the limelight and fed it into his signature mystique; an ethereal presence that pulled the strings from backstage until the big reveal (spoiler alert) of his own dramatised death.

The appeal of Bowie, as the Bowie exhibition at Urban Cow Studio reveals, was that he was a different thing to different people. This is a popular account, mocked by Bowie himself who once sardonically referred to himself as the “chameleon of rock” in a live television interview, simultaneously acknowledging and dispelling the myth surrounding his artistic persona. What this oft-repeated analysis obscures is that, widely appealing as it may be (as all enduring pop icons are), the work of David Bowie regardless revolves around a single personality with common threads throughout it.

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Bowie-inspired art by various Adelaide artists at the Urban Cow Studio. Photo Credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis.

The exhibition revealed a fascination with two primary aspects of what makes David Bowie David Bowie. It firstly highlighted the particularly iconographic power of his work, through the intermixing of familiar images made unfamiliar by their unconventional referencing. There were Thin White Dukes labelled ‘Starman’, and Ziggy Stardust improbably covering ‘Let’s Dance’; each artist had a particular construction of Bowie they felt inclined to express. While perhaps one too many of these were pulled from Google rather than the mixer, it captured the tension between fluid identity and the ‘greatest hits’ that Bowie himself struggled with in his late-career work.

The recently closed ‘David Bowie Is..” exhibition at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image had a whole section dedicated to these themes entitled ‘David Bowie is.. trying to outrun himself’. It explored Bowie’s under documented 1990’s work in the context of what came before, and recognised it as pivotal to what would come afterwards. Like many artists of his generation, Bowie initially responded to the growing weight of his legacy by outright rejecting it, firstly through a series of attempted ‘first and final’ greatest hits tours where he would retire the live performance of his hits. This was followed through by a period of extreme stylistic experimentation and collaboration with the alternative music of the day, particularly in the ‘Outside’ and ‘Earthling’ albums. In retrospect, it was the sound of a once subversive artist following the current.

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Bowie-inspired art by various Adelaide artists at the Urban Cow Studio. Photo Credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis.

Whether as part of a larger cultural backlash or a personal one, Bowie’s subsequent albums employed a ‘back to basics’ approach; which is itself a pop trope. While a return to standard instrumentation and referencing familiar themes is often interpreted as a regressive, crowd pleasing response, the ‘Hours..’, ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’ albums sounded as they looked; Bowie’s costuming slightly distressed with age, but highlighting the passage of time through contrast with the references he now only resembled in passing. As a gesture, they were a frank admission that perhaps the source of Bowie’s appeal was in doing what he did best all along.

If the choice of visualised lyrics (and references to a certain pair of red dancing shoes) from the Urban Cow Studio exhibition are anything to go by, this meant rediscovering, decade after decade, a certain pop sensibility that spans from his final, critically acclaimed albums to the rock and roll/R’n’B stars Bowie admired as a Brixton teenager. To paraphrase Rolling Stone, quoting the highly onomatopoeic Little Richard lyric: ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!’ remains the most succinct rock lyric ever written; capturing rock’s unique union of rawness, dexterity and lyrical content that feels inherently subversive. Suitably, Bowie’s final albums, ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ seem to build on the standard-rock momentum of the preceding albums, but delivered with a rediscovered urgency, assisted by the subtle innovation of incorporating 90’s influenced rhythm sections to quicken their pace.

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Bowie-inspired art by various Adelaide artists at the Urban Cow Studio. Photo Credit: Matilda Handsley-Davis.

Bowie himself arguably foreshadowed the work as far back as 2002, when in the midst of a comparatively placid period of his life, he described in a television interview that he expressed there was a certain “darkness” he had left to express. It appears that Bowie was at his best as a musician when the work mirrored periods of personal crisis: whether it was dreams of fame, the trappings of fame, the fear of the millennium or the looming ‘Blackstar’ of death.

– Tin Do

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