State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Museums and Art Galleries, different why? discuss!

This blog is about the exhibition David Bowie Is and how it inspired questions regarding the difference between art and artifact.

A former curator of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery told me a story about his museum studies degree which he took in the 1960’s in an American museum. He was led to a glass case containing a box of sticks. In less than five minutes he was supposed to tell the professor what these sticks were and their significance. The sticks represented an ancient navigational tool from the south seas that mapped the stars – like a sextant but hundreds of years earlier. His point to me at the time was that this was a tool not an object of art which is why it was in a museum. I used to think I understood this distinction: museums are for artifacts which tell stories that enlighten us about the world around us and ourselves, art galleries are for interpretations of what we think we are in this world. Now I must admit to being somewhat lost on the subject.

This past week I attended the much beloved David Bowie Is at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I am one of those people who was saved by Bowie in my adolescence. He used his delicate frame and voice to tell stories about space, urban dystopias, cross cultural and cross gender experiences.  At times he actually jeopardized his career to make the kind of music and statement he wanted with no compromise. He’s impressive.

To me Bowie was and always will be a great explorer and his career in the arts is a truly unique adventure.

I read about the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition last year as it became the biggest exhibition in London’s history with something like 300,000 plus people attending. Seeing Bowie venerated at that great Victorian institution, an institution that stood for everything he tried to turn on its head seemed wonderfully ironic and devilishly suitable. It had the Ziggy Stardust costume (or at least a very good facsimile), his story board for the Diamond Dogs tour/film/animation series with Jack the Pumpkin King (Tim Burton must have been privy to something there when he made the Nightmare Before Christmas), a work that I always thought was a rumour and tons of other stuff that Bowie has kept over the years. Like walking into the world’s coolest hoarder’s wardrobe, I thought, wow, sounds amazing.

This is a great image and watching the Starman performance is always awesome but... there was a wee bit of 'forced fandom'*
This is the Starman exhibit, great original video plays behind the costume. The song is a sweet bit of naivete by a star gazing teen who knows that it’s ok to rock n’ roll and wishes a space traveler would appear to say so.

You can imagine my despair upon entering the AGO’s version of it last week when I realized that they had removed tons of Canadian contemporary art in order to fit it in. Two floors worth. Unfortunately that irked me right away. But still, its Bowie right? But it wasn’t. Taking a cue from his philosophy that culture (imagery, video, sound, music, writing, style) all happens at once, the curator(s) decided to suffocate the viewer with sound, experience, reading and comprehension about Bowie and his career, collaborators and what he wore. While I admit to liking seeing his original chicken scratch lyrics to Heroes and that wonderful Scary Monsters costume, I kept thinking had this been in the hallowed halls of the ROM or some kind of old fashioned coliseum where stuffy museum protocol is always in place then perhaps this show might have seen like an outrageous evocation. That it originated at the Victoria & Albert Museum makes Bowie and everything he made and created seem truly radical because his mercurial nature is now an official part of the waning half of the 20th century; post WWII when chemicals, noise, terror, sexuality all become part of what rock n’ roll was meant to do, stomp on Victorian England for good. It didn’t work (see Harry Potter) but at least all those guys tried.

At the AGO it all seemed squeezed into a blockbuster cookie cutter. The AGO’s contemporary places are large white cubes where all sorts of contemporary ideas are thrown about, some not terribly successful but the white cube gives them the power and safety of experimentation. They are forced into a tabula rasa, and their creation springs at you from nothing. It’s perhaps a tired template too but it works for art that has not stood the test of time.

While I agree Bowie is an artist who merits an own art show, it can be argued that what is in the exhibit isn’t his art. Nostalgia, a portrait of an artist made from archival information,  David Bowie Is is wonderful bits and pieces, tools and inspirational ideas of a person whose creativity has no boundaries. But I have his art in my studio, every single vinyl pressing and it is creative, imaginative, brilliant, daring, sexual and still inspired.

I have a query into the AGO regarding why this exhibition landed there and not at the ROM or another museum, I am awaiting the response.

David Bowie Is closes November 27th, at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Pic courtesy the AGO

State of the Arts will return November 28.


2 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. Great post, Victoria. I was at the V&A exhibit and was initially astonished to see the lineup of grey heads in front of me. Bowie–and his undersized frame–are the direct product of the rationing that went on after WWII. He was the antidote to grey, bombed out Britain, credited with changing British society from one of absolute conformity to being one of options. One of my favorite Bowie quotes is one to do with people being afraid of colour. When you look at the Starman costume, it really is pretty conservative, except for the Liberty print! The V&A has a new mandate to broaden their programming beyond the applied/decorative arts. Getting people in the door is necessary, they have a huge building to maintain. The costume department is gorgeous. There is a huge demand to see fashion and costumes, so Bowie is a natural ‘fit’!

    1. Lesley,

      Thank you for reading. I was very envious of those who saw the original exhibition at the V&A. A good fit and it is great that they made money, they need to!! The AGO however…. not sure it was brilliantly thought out. But my view might be marginal. It usually is! LOL

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