This week ACMI launches David Bowie Is, an in-depth survey of the career of one of the most revered figures in the history of pop music.
For almost 50 years, David Bowie has been shape-shifting through identities, looks and sounds like some people rifle through used records at an op-shop.
So why, throughout this scattershot career, are we still hooked? We ask four very different Bowie fans how he figures into their work and beyond.
The superfan: Geraldine Quinn
There’s a lot of Bowie in the home of comedian and musician Geraldine Quinn, including bootleg vinyl, T-shirts and an original Serious Moonlight tour poster (if you look from the right angle, you can make out the original owner’s lipstick marks). Quinn and her band, Spandex Ballet, will perform at ACMI’s Bowie Late Nights series.
What was your first Bowie?
I have no idea. I was born in 1975, so he was just always there. My first conscious memories of him would have been Ashes to Ashes, which was a big deal. I was about five. The video for Ashes to Ashes was just normal to me when I was five. Where do you go from there?
Why do you think people go crazy over every aspect of this man’s life?
As a performer and writer, I’ve had the benefit of the influence of someone who is constantly inventive. He’s a magpie, picking things from different genres and cultures, and what he’s produced reflects that. It’s hard to be the first person to do something. You’re an outsider.
He’s never stopped being curious about every art form. He grabs hold of things and says to the audience, “I’ve noticed this . . . what do you think of it?” without necessarily giving them an answer. There are a lot of people in the world with a lot to say, and sometimes it’s refreshing to have someone who doesn’t tell you what to think.
The museum curator: Kathryn Johnson
By the time David Bowie Is opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2013, assistant curator Kathryn Johnson was an accidental Bowie expert. Now, Johnson is coming to Melbourne to launch the latest leg of the exhibition.
How did the exhibition come about?
The V&A is the national museum of art, design and performance, and there’s no one else who combines all three of those with amazing flair and creativity. He once said he didn’t want to just make music, he wanted to make something three-dimensional.
Your work has made you a fan of Bowie, is that right?
Yes. I didn’t see it coming, but after three years immersed in his work I became a fan. I discovered so many unfinished projects and drawings. He was so involved in every part of the process, and I was so impressed by that creativity and vision. He’s tried so many different styles that you need to see it all together to appreciate it fully.
We have this huge, venerating retrospective for a pop star who is still alive. Why?
Last night I turned on the radio and heard Suffragette City. Then a girl walked past my flat with a Bowie lightning bolt on her T-shirt. It’s everywhere. Why? I don’t know. He disappeared for a decade. Maybe we missed him. He left behind such incredible imagery.
I always go back to what Bowie said – he wanted to be a catalyst. He wanted to turn people on to new things. His music always has that power, and so it always feels fresh and relevant. It’s not complete and finished and that’s it. It feels like an invitation to play.
We may have missed him, but in 2013 he suddenly returned with The Next Day.
We had such a neat display of all of his album covers in the exhibition, and then The Next Day was announced. We had no idea. He’s a master of sitting right in the middle of a contradiction. The cover of that album (which is just the cover of his 1977 album Heroes, obscured by a large white square) reminds you of the past, but refuses to be nostalgic.
The musician: Paul Dornau
Paul Dornau’s band, Tek Tek, is an eclectic “mini orchestra”, colliding dozens of genres, cultures and sounds, from Eastern European folk, to Indonesian pop. When I speak to Dornau, he’s in the middle of arranging a twangy, Chicha Peruvian surf-rock version of The Man Who Sold The World to perform at the Bowie Late Nights series.
What was your first Bowie?
When I was about 10 I had a compilation with The Laughing Gnome on it. It’s like nothing he’s done. It sounds like he’s riffing on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. I used to know all the words off by heart.
Why do you think the world is still obsessed with Bowie?
Well, the songs and costumes are all incredible. I also think it’s impressive the way he slips into so many different situations, moving from glam rock straight to working with African-American soul artists in the US, for instance.
Tek Tek also has something of a magpie attitude to different musical styles.
Playing in Tek Tek, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about cultural appropriation. A lot of our stuff is original, but in a variety of global styles. There’s a strange reaction when white people play different types of music in Australia. Latin American music seems fine. African music isn’t. Our attitude, like Bowie’s, is that nothing is off limits.
The theorist: Tanja Stark
Tanja Stark has had an eclectic career, from visual artist and counsellor to her current incarnation as an “accidental writer", renowned for her theoretical work on Bowie’s fascination with Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung. Stark will speak about Jung and Bowie at one of the Strange Fascination series of talks at ACMI on Sunday July 26.
What was your first Bowie?
The sound and vision of Ashes to Ashes, with this strange creature inhabiting a weird, twilight zone, strung out in some purgatorial space, tortured between “heavens high” and an “all-time low”. It was mesmerising.
Tell me about your essay on Bowie and Jung.
Bowie has described himself as being “very Jungian”, particularly in his relationships to dreams and reality. He actually sang of Jung on his Aladdin Sane album, with its word play on sanity and that iconic lightning flash that now adorns Melbourne.
Exploring Jung’s psychology in relation to Bowie’s creative career, including concepts like the collective unconscious, the integration of opposites, and archetypal images like the Shadow and the Persona, uncovers fascinating parallels that highlight the heart of Bowie’s multilayered work.
Intriguingly, Bowie describes spirituality as a recurring theme throughout much of his writing, naming Space Oddity as an early example. This throws a whole new archetypal layer upon his recurrent space metaphors that I tease out in my writing.
Why do you think there is a global fascination with Bowie?
I'm not sure most people consciously know why they are drawn to his work, but I think Bowie resonates because his cryptic and symbolic iconography is infused with the anxieties of existence.
To paraphrase the man himself, “It's the same old archetypes in brand new drag” – so, so strange, yet so familiar.
Of course, it’s not all this deep existential stuff – lot of it is just lovely pop.
David Bowie Is launches at ACMI on Thursday July 16 and runs until November 1.