David Bowie is at the AGO


Is he a boy or a girl? Is he from Earth or outer space?

Fans can now take an in-depth look inside the life and career of David Bowie in a comprehensive exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. David Bowie Is was curated by the Victoria & Albert museum in London after being given unprecedented access to Bowie’s personal archives, holding 75,000 unique pieces from his extraordinary career.

Walking into the exhibition, guests are given a headset that provides audio commentary about the show, making it a complete interactive multimedia experience. Approaching certain visuals trigger an audio log containing song samples and commentary from Bowie himself.

“The show was designed from the very beginning to be an interactive multimedia experience. And so, without the audio you won’t get the full story and the realness in music. The curators felt very strongly that, at the end of the day, Bowie is a musical artist and we had to keep bringing it back to that,” said Jim Shedden, manager of publications at the AGO.

Rooms are filled with bits of Bowie’s work from the early ‘60s to today. A Star Man room is devoted to the Major Tom era, with an image of Earth behind a black canvas and clips of the fictional astronaut performing his legendary song “Space Oddity.” A poster of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs in the same room, a film Bowie was heavily influenced by during that period.

Different visuals are observed along the walls throughout. Rare handwritten notes and playlists cover every corner to compliment the appropriate segment of his life.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1975-6. Film stills by David James.

“I most enjoyed the numerous displays showing early copies of handwritten lyrics from some of his most famous songs, such as ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ and ‘Life on Mars.’ It was very raw and authentic,” said Jeremy Nagel, 23, a student who travelled from Mississauga to share the experience.

David Bowie is known as an artist who is forever changing, keeping a broad selection of influences and collaborations.

“We’ve become very interested in expanding our approach to visual culture and this is a perfect show to do it. Bowie himself is one the most iconic artists in the past 50 years and he is very much a visual thinker and an incredible collaborator,” said Shedden.

“He crosses boundaries. In his career he’s worked with fashion designers, set designers, visual artists, other musicians, playwrights and filmmakers. That became really interesting to us.”

The exhibition has an almost frightening sense of confusion and oddity. Certain rooms hold haunting images and sound, memorializing the most surreal periods. Images of Bowie as a half-man/half-dog appear on the walls, a mannequin dressed in the famous “Ziggy Stardust” bodysuit lays still in a glass tomb. Miniature statues with a moving visual of the man’s face stare and wink at guests.

Approximately 60 costumes from the icon’s time on stage, in films and album covers are shown, including outfits from contemporary designers Kansai Yamaoto and Freddie Burretti, who designed the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits in 1972. The Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen from the Earthling (1997) stands prominently on display.

An area dedicated to the film Labyrinth is shown. The crystal ball used by his character in the film sits in a glass case.

The final part of the show has guests entering a large area surrounded by wall-sized screens illuminating famous stage performances, including segments of Bowie performing “Ashes To Ashes” and “The Man Who Sold The World.” The songs chime in through the headsets and the spectacle is realized in a brilliantly displayed multimedia experience.

The David Bowie Is exhibition will run until Nov. 27. Tickets can be bought online at tickets.ago.net.

Check out this weeks Bowie infographic.