Justin and I are both huge music fans, so when we heard that there was going to be an exclusive exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) called “David Bowie Is”, we knew that we had to attend! All the way back in 2002, I had the pleasure of seeing David Bowie perform live in concert in Toronto. It was one of my most memorable concert experiences. My sister and I had seats in the lower section near the stage at the Molson Amphitheatre, and when David Bowie came on stage, we ran up to the front of the stage. The security guards didn’t seem to mind that we were out of our designated seats. The legendary David Bowie was performing on stage so close to us that I could have reached out and grabbed his foot at times if I had wanted to! The man puts on a fantastic show. At the AGO, fans of Bowie are able to immerse themselves fully in his music and his art.
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We booked our tickets in advance on the AGO website as only a limited number of tickets are available each day. They were sold in blocks every half hour. You could also purchase them at the museum’s ticket booth, but we didn’t want to run the risk of having them sell out. By only letting a certain amount of visitors in at a time, this allows everyone to view all of the Bowie artifacts without the rooms becoming too crowded with people. We visited the exhibition on one of its final days, so it may have been a little bit busier than usual. However, we were able to see everything that was on display, as long as we waited our turn in some cases.
When we walked to the back of the AGO towards the exhibit, we didn’t have to wait in any kind of line-up to enter. We were each handed a headset and were instructed to keep the headphones on throughout the exhibit. As we walked around the various rooms, the sound being played into the headsets would change accordingly. There were many videos throughout the exhibition and on many occasions, the audio playing through the headphones would correspond with the video being played on the screen. Other times, we would hear some of Bowie’s music playing that went along with what we were viewing on display. In one instance, we could stand on different squares on the floor and a different music track would play into our ears that went along with one of several television monitors. The headphones transformed a visual museum exhibit into a full auditory experience. First and foremost, the exhibit celebrated Bowie’s contributions to music throughout the past five decades, and the headphones allowed everyone to personally experience this.
We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the exhibition. I could only imagine how crowded it would get in there if everyone were trying to snap photos! I did manage to sneak in a couple from the 5th floor that are posted below. The exhibition started in the 4th floor of the AGO and went up some stairs to the 5th floor. I should mention that this had to be the largest collection of Bowie memorabilia that I’m sure we will ever see all in one place – there were over 300 objects including costumes, handwritten lyrics, letters, diary entries, original artwork, set and stage designs, videos, sketches, instruments, set lists, and the list goes on. These items were all hand selected by the museum curators from Bowie’s personal collection of over 75,000 objects!
In the first rooms on the fourth floor, there are many photos depicting Bowie’s early childhood amongst a gray, postwar England. We view his several forays into other bands and musical acts as Davie Jones (he was born as David Jones before changing his name to David Bowie). Finally, we see his musical breakthrough with “Space Oddity” as America puts a man on the moon. We are able to view this promotional video from 1972 in the background, with several mementos related to the song in the foreground:
Not only did we view many artifacts from the Bowie archives, but his work was closely compared to artistic, musical, and literary ideas from the time. His images were placed alongside Andy Warhol’s art, as the two were fans of one another. We learned about how Bowie was inspired by Dadaism and how his lyrics at times used the “cut up technique” that was popularized by William S. Burroughs.
From the fourth floor, we walked up a spiral staircase up to the fifth floor for a continuation of the exhibition. The staircase was surrounded by huge windows that offered great panoramic views of the city. As you can see, it was quite dreary outside that day, which made it a perfect day to be indoors at the museum! We could see a giant art installation at the nearby OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), just low enough in the sky as to not be shrouded in fog.
Back to Bowie…we walked into one giant room where there was just so much to see! This area was home to most of his costumes and fashion through the ages. Bowie is a true fashion icon, blurring the lines between what is masculine and feminine, inspiring generations with his elaborate costumes. His fashion influences are derived from Japanese kabuki, plays on historical artifacts (tailored outfits reminiscent of military garb), and mime performance. From a childhood in a gray postwar environment comes bursts of bright colour and imaginative fashion pieces that are works of art. In one instance for a Saturday Night Live performance in 1979, two performers actually had to pick up and move Bowie to the front of the stage in his heavy costume that rendered him immobile. His iconic Union Jack coat was also on display from the 1997 album and tour for Earthlings.
There was also a room illustrating Bowie’s contribution to film. A clip from one of my favourite classic movies, Labryinth, was being shown up on a screen. There were some props from his movies, including a letter from Jim Henson to Bowie as well as the crystal ball from the film.
The last room of the exhibition immersed us fully in a David Bowie concert experience. There were three floor-to-ceiling screens that showed one of Bowie’s live performances. Some of the screens flashed and you could see projected images of his costumes amongst the concert scenes. There were also more costumes and musical instruments on display near the screens.
I’m sure that I left out a ton of things from the exhibit, but to fully experience it, you’ll have to see it for yourself in person! Tickets are $30 per person and the exhibit is running for only a couple more days at the AGO until November 29th, 2013. From there, the exhibit will travel to Brazil, Paris, Chicago, and The Netherlands, so you might get your chance if you live near any of those regions. Hopefully it will continue to more countries beyond that! We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon spent learning more about the amazing David Bowie. At the moment, I’m digging out all of my old Bowie records and figuring out which ones I need to add to our collection!
If you’re interested, there is a book that we purchased at the museum that was published exclusively for the exhibition. It shows glossy photographs of everything that was on display with detailed written descriptions. We purchased this as a companion to our visit so we could have our own copy of everything that was displayed. Also, it was a lot to take in over a few hours, so we’ll be able to perhaps absorb even more information from the book. You can purchase it over on Amazon for those who aren’t able to attend the exhibit in person.