At the top of the David Bowie Is exhibition the Yohji Yamomoto black record body suit presents the wild spectacle of David Bowie. Then one moves to spend time in David Bowie’s early years, or really , the time before “David Bowie”. Here I got a sense of him as creative reclusive person, who through mime discovers his whole embodied self can be the basis of art as performance. David Bowie emerges out of a varied set of influences and a traditional performance art.
(This isn’t a review of David Bowie Is exhibition, but a reflection on Bowie as an artist informed by the traveling exhibit, that had been at the Museum Contemporary Art, Chicago, and closed January 4, 2015.)
“David Bowie” in seeming contradiction to the spectacle isn’t about authenticity, or originality. David Bowie isn’t concerned about himself as the origin of his art. From the start he rejects the Rocker”s refusal of stage make up. The Rocker rejected make up as inauthentic. David Bowie picks it up like the early rockers, but doesn’t attempt to make it “authentic” or representing an original author. Rather, make up becomes part of an abyssal persona without originality. Make up is of course a key component to the Ziggy Stardust era along with wild costumes. In Ziggy Stardust we, also find the various ways in which Bowie, as a performance artist, borrows from all sorts of sources and in collaboration. He collaborates with designers for the costumes , on album art, and with studio musicians. Originality, authenticity is questioned and turned upside down, even as “David Bowie” leaves behind very creative and odd artifacts .
(We should not forget that David Bowie is a stage name and persona. A friend once met David Bowie in a book shop and she approached him and asked are you David Bowie? As he pulled down his shades, to reveal his eyes, he said to my friend, “Not today, love.”).
A portion of the David Bowie Is exhibit pauses in reflection upon Bowie’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Behind the displayed costumes from that performance, in large lettering, a question is emblazoned: “David Bowie Revolutionary or Plagiarist?” That question raises the dilemma of our understanding of authenticity and originality. It also comes at a point in the exhibition after which Bowie’s originality is troubled by having seen how David Bowie is collaborative, and draws not only inspiration but whole tropes (conceptual and visual) form various works and art forms. Originality and authenticity is also troubled by Bowie’s system for conjuring of lyrics. The exhibition has already challenged notions of authorial originality and intention. So, one is prepared to see the question as a false dilemma. Yet I also think it articulates how we fail to grasp tradition and how it functions.
As wild as David Bowie is, my experience of him , as presented in David Bowie Is, was as a traditional artist and not avant guarde. Granted there is much in his performance that challenged convention and the status quo, but he is overtly and intentionally working with what he has received, and what others have abandoned and bringing what has been handed him into a place of freshness and newness. Part of what he receives as his career progress is “David Bowie” as a tradition to be mined. His own body of work becomes that which he receives and passes on to himself.
David Bowie fits within a tradition of entertainment, performance, art, and music. David Bowie is also his own Tradition.
It perhaps is strange to think of Bowie as an unoriginal , inauthentic, and traditional performance artist who has challenged the status quo and created a unique persona and set of personas. This is strange because we think that challenging the status quo occurs out of a place of authenticity and originality. We see tradition as only a conservative and static impulse. Yet, if we see tradition as a dynamic moment of receptivity and creativity, then we can begin to look at the self-contradictory aspect of originality and authenticity:
Can any of us claim to be our own origin? can any of us be ourselves without dependence upon or reference to anything nor anyone else? Don’t we all receive ourselves from others? Authenticity as originating only in the self and through independence consumes itself in an impossibility.
Bowie refuses the obsession with authenticity, embracing artifice and persona. In so doing he puts himself in a place to receive a tradition of performance art that he then uses to create an astounding body of work. In the body of work of “David Bowie” one doesn’t find the true authentic artist of an original body of work. Rather one finds a body of work in conversation with a tradition of music and performance art (mime, fashion, theater, film, music), and a body of work that becomes its own tradition that is received and passed on.
David Bowie’s artistic body of work is overwhelming, shocking, wild, and creative, but it isn’t original. The career and body of work received under the name “David Bowie” is possibly one of the best illustration of Jesus’ aphorism from the Gospel of Matthew: “The Scribes of the Kingdom are like one who brings out from the treasury what is both old and new.” Such is what it means to be in a tradition, to have received a treasure out of which one brings both the old and the new. Such is the body of work of David Bowie.
Granted David Bowie’s tradition isn’t a religious tradition but of performance, art, and music, and of “David Bowie” himself. In this body of work we find what is both new and old, revolution and plagiarism. What we don’t find is an authentic original author, David Bowie. Such a singular and authentic origin doesn’t exist. Or rather the origin and authenticity of David Bowie is found in others from whom he received what makes up “David Bowie.”