Bowie ephemera at the Tate Liverpool (All images by author)

Bowie ephemera at the Tate Liverpool (All images by author)

BRIGHTON, UK — For several decades now we have been laboring under the impression David Bowie is a pop star. But a new show at Tate Liverpool puts Bowie where he firmly belongs, as a central figure in art. It proves the pioneering musician is also a muse, a performance artist, and a conceptualist all rolled into one. Glam! the Performance of Style takes a late ‘60s-early ‘70s moment in fashion and music and explores its beginnings in and impact upon the worlds of visual art. But the inadvertent fact of the matter is this: a group show which pulls together more than 40 bona-fide painters, photographers, and sculptors owes much of its sensibility to Ziggy Stardust et al. Without Bowie, there would be no exhibition. It’s just a shame his name is not included on the list of works.

He does of course feature in the works of others. There are black-and-white portraits by legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, and fashion lensman Terry O’Neill. These are remarkable for demonstrating that firstly even extraterrestrial glam performers take the train and secondly that Bowie has a talent for image making which goes far beyond most of his peers. O‘Neill‘s famous shot has the singer in a chair beside a giant leaping hound. The dog is all muscle and fangs, Bowie all poise and dandyism. So that once seen, it is the kind of picture that stays with you every bit as much as a serious work of art. Or rather it reminds us just how seriously we should take Bowie.

Bowie Meets Warhol film

Elsewhere he forms the subject of a Ray Johnson collage. The American artist has traced around the star’s silhouette and included a toothbrush in a possible nod to Bowie’s formerly and famously bad teeth. But Johnson’s other artworks here feature Warholian drag queen Jackie Curtis and poet Frank O’Hara. You had to be someone to figure in one of these collages. Were the subjects not destined for cultural history, it is doubtful they would find inclusion in a work of art like this. Bowie’s name even crops up in the O‘Hara piece, so it is safe to say Johnson is a fan.

Fandom bordering on idolatry usually belongs to the pop performer rather than the artist, but it becomes clear from Glam at Tate that by the time the 70s roll round many artists decide they want a piece of that action. Rock posturing became a fine art trope. One collaborative performance group from Kent in the South East of England became known as Nice Style and was for all intents and purposes a rock band without the music. Other art school types tried their hands at music with success ranging from limited (Moody and the Menstruators) to phenomenal (Roxy Music). Bowie’s sense of artifice can be found in all three.

David Lamelas, “Rock Star Character Appropriation” (1974)

Meanwhile David Lamelas also found he “could make a transformation as a rock and roll star” to quote one of Ziggy’s best lines. The Argentinian artist posed for a series of raw black and white photos of himself with an electric guitar. Visitors will find him in the throes of abandon. His beard suggests authenticity and indeed this work probably owes more to Jim Morrison than David Bowie. But this silent frenzy of his does call to mind the fan mania which accompanied Bowie throughout the 1970s and the drug-induced psychosis of his later incarnations during that decade.

Andy Warhol, “Pork” poster

But while Bowie hasn’t got his name on as many plaques as he might have done, he is an overwhelming figure in the two “glamscapes” that Tate has created to showcase ephemera from the era. Four of five of his albums are on show, along with posters and magazine covers which demonstrate that Bowie has had a much greater media presence than the artists he is shown alongside here. As curator Darren Pih puts it: “The 1970s were the era when the avant-garde hit the High Street,” and Bowie was “key” to that trend. He also features in a filmed encounter with Andy Warhol in which the visual artist and the recording artist discuss shoes. Pih points out that, like Warhol, Bowie does his work through intermediaries — in his case the many persona he adopts with an “agile, magpie-like role within visual culture”.

If talent borrows and genius steals, Bowie must really be the latter. He goes so far as to poach the cast of a musical at the end of its run at the Roundhouse in London.  The show was Pork by Warhol and the performers were signed up to represent Bowie in his US-based management company MainMan. This was the singer’s crass attempt to build a Factory-like entourage and is a reminder that the music biz has more sharp edges than the art world. Bowie wrote a well-known song about Warhol and it’s telling that Andy never returned the favor. Between the singer’s ambition and the artist’s aloofness this may have been the moment that closed Bowie out of the art world at a critical point in his career.

Yet there can be little doubt that Bowie has a pair of cultural antennae that bear comparison with Warhol’s. For the next ten years he continued to surf the zeitgeist and build a myth every bit as potent. The pair were both involved in film, on different sides of the lens. Both artists also made a performance out of their lives and work, and that of Bowie displays a level of imagination and depth far beyond what might otherwise be required for a rock star. Take away the music and his several personae might still prove a valid conceptual response to the 1970s. Add the music and you have a gesamtkunstwerk to rival that of any visual artist.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s “Celebration? Realife”

Either way, Bowie’s music soundtracks at least three or four rooms of the Tate Liverpool’s show. This is thanks to his inclusion in an installation of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s theatrical work “Celebration? Realife.” The French artist has artfully scattered streamers and glitter around a series of props ranging from a picture of Lenin to a plastic figures of a bride and groom. Light comes bouncing off a mirror ball and strobes pulsate. This deserted 1972 piece hints the glam party was already over; Ziggy Stardust’s party ended a year later when he quit on stage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. This is no doubt one reason why artist Mike Kelley called Bowie “a mirror of our culture of planned obsolescence.” And anyone who can reflect such a phenomena and remain perennially engaging surely warrants a place in an art show.

Glam! The Performance of Style runs at Tate Liverpool (Albert Dock, Liverpool, UK) through May 12.

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Mark Sheerin

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared...

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