“Put a peephole in my brain
Two new pence to have a go
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show.”
– David Bowie, “Andy Warhol”
Presently in Toronto, a massive and all-encompassing retrospective of David Bowie’s music, visual, and dramatic art is packing them in at the Art Gallery Of Ontario, hot off a sold-out debut run at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum, where it had been playfully christened by Bowie’s androgynous counterpart, Tilda Swinton. Entitled “David Bowie Is” this immersive multi-media explosion of sound and vision is also doing something Mr. Bowie himself is not–it is touring. After its run at the end of November, David Bowie Is will continue conquering the world with stops at the Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, the Philharmonie de Paris / Cité de la Musique, Paris, and the Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands.
And Bowie is not alone, as many of the most influential art rockers whose career blossomed in the concert halls of the ’70s, today find themselves curated in the art galleries, from the staid and stuffy to the fashionably futurist. These venues mirror Bowie’s high-culture meets low-culture appeal, while confirming something that his fans have always known; Bowie, like Warhol before him, has blurred the boundaries between commerciality and willfully obscure conceptual art.
Nowhere is this made clearer than inside the lovingly arranged pages of the official David Bowie Is coffee table book, curated and edited by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. Inside, V&A museum director Martin Roth celebrate what he terms the indelible stamp Bowie has left on the look, style, sound, and attitudes of his time.
“One of the key roles of the museum,” Roth writes, “is to celebrate great design. Bowie is not only one of the great musicians and performers of the last half-century, he is also among the great designers and visionaries. An instigator not just of memorable individual pieces–an album sleeve, a costume, a hairstyle–but of a particular zeitgeist that is uniquely his and yet resonates with enormous numbers of people around the globe.”
In their introduction to the book, Broackes and Marsh affirm what they describe as a “vigorous forward-looking spirit” in Bowie’s work, which has “channeled the avant-garde into the populist mainstream without compromising its subversive, liberating power.” They see his work as having a kind of continuity with artists as diverse as Warhol, Dali, and Artaud, but also Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Phillip Glass, Jim Henson, Kate Moss, and Marshall McLuhan. Marsh was adamant that a proper gallery edition was needed to present Bowie as a true 20th-century artist and not a mere pop star.
“There have been a huge number of books about Bowie,” Marsh recently admitted to Sara Crompton in the Telegraph, “but they are by rock journalists and may not be of interest to the general public. The reason he is interesting is that he is more than a rock star.”
Bowie is not alone in the art section of your local bookstore. He shares space with thinky books like How Music Works, by ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, and Visual Music, a vast tome celebrating the gallery career of a man who has coached them both, Brian Eno.
The question of Brian Eno’s proper job description frequently sends critics and fans from the worlds of both art and popular music into a jumble of cross discipline hyphenates; producer-composer, musician-theorist, performer-videographer. But according to Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, Eno is a hybrid of all of the above, and represents a welcome changing of the guard in the museum culture, which he terms “slippage,” after years of rigorous debate around the juxtaposition of “high” and “low” culture, elite and mass culture, and fine and popular art. Scoates, who put together Visual Music with generous input from Eno and a coterie of Eno-savvy writers, artists and professors, says that this “dynamic network of disciplines coming together” is one of the main reasons he finds Eno’s work so fascinating.
“There has always been a sort of a tension between traditional museum programs and the ever-growing influence of pop culture,” says Scoates, just days before flying to London to launch the book with Eno at the Royal College of Art. “If we just look at the Walker Art Center’s Internet Cat Video Festival last year, the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, the David Bowie Is show at the V&A, Kraftwerk playing sold out performances at both the MoMA and The Tate, and even the recent Stanley Kubrick Exhibition at LACMA, museums are trying to expand their spaces in order to accommodate this sort of convergence of media. There’s a kind of an awkward tension, or what I call slippage, between the disciplines, where what would seem to be a natural fit is actually not at all. And where these disciplines are starting to come together that I think there’s great success from museum programs going forward.”
Like many contemporary art critics, curators and gallery directors, Scoates came of age in the 1970s, when popstars like David Bowie appeared to have literally fallen to earth. While acknowledging the impact of glam and futurist rockers, Scoates adds that the acceptance of these former outsiders into modern museum culture is more indicative of a change in the way galleries shift to a more multi-media, or immersive, experience.
“I grew up in England,” says Scoates, “and the first album I ever bought was Ziggy Stardust, so I’m a huge Bowie fan, and as such I followed the notion that most of the great musicians out of England went to art school. Brian Eno is a prime example of this, he went to art school in Ipswich, in 1964, and studied with Roy Ascott who started this thing called the Groundcourse which was incredibly groundbreaking in the way that he wanted to teach his students. From there, Brian went to Winchester College of Art and rebelled against the formal educational art system of the time, in painting, and was really doing a lot of performances, all based in Fluxus. In 1968, he did something called The Drip Event, which was a [Fluxus artist] George Brecht piece, so Brian really spent all of his early years in art school, thinking about sounds, cybernetics, and systems. Those who only know Brian Eno as the producer of U2 and Coldplay, or as a collaborator to David Bowie, are going to be surprised.”
In Ascott’s foreword to Visual Music, he cautions against any attempt to triangulate the work of his former pupil within a historical framework, mainly because Brian Eno is himself part of a new paradigm.
“We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork,” he writes, “without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. … Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.”
This tone is mirrored in a number of the scholarly essays in the book. Scoates discusses the arc and the historical narrative of Eno’s art school training, new media expert Steve Dietz looks at Eno’s digital work in more focus, and Brian Dillon of the Royal College of Art writes about landscape and what he calls the “topographical engagement” in all his artistic endeavors. Game designer Will Wright discusses of The Aesthetics of Time, and there is even a transcript of Eno’s 1992 presentation at Sadler’s Wells.
“What we tried to do,” says Scoates, “was to give people a kind of a sense of the sort of dynamic network that Brian exists in, and in some way have that be a part of the book, subconsciously. Just in the way the book is ordered, and the Oblique Strategies on the bookmark ribbon, there’s hopefully a playful sense about the way that Brian’s work is read and listened to and watched that is somehow replicated in the book too. You know, Brian’s been showing at galleries and things like the Venice Biennale consistently from the mid-1960s to the present day but he often laments that he’s perceived to be just dabbling, playing around in the art world. I hope that when people read this book, they sort of recalibrate their perception of not only Brian’s work but they way he thinks about it.”
Lastly, Scoates credits Eno’s art school training for allowing Visual Music to avoid becoming a mere vanity piece. While Eno was highly involved in the assembly and selection of materials, Scoates says the artist trusted the assembled scholars, and gave them a free hand in their critiques. The finished book is weighty and impressive, kind of a desktop gallery show. Yet that does beg one final question; If Brian Eno’s milieu is interdisciplinary slippage, interactive and immersive processes, why then is Visual Music presented on paper, in a conventional hardback book?
“In the very early discussions for the book,” says Scoates, laughing at the obvious irony, “we discussed whether we could make this an interactive electronic book, but unfortunately I don’t t think the publishing industry is quite there to deliver the level of quality it would require. I think we were concerned that if we’d done that now, the book would have disappeared rather quickly.”