I found myself in the Art Gallery of Ontario flabbergasted by the girth of the exhibition David Bowie is. The 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive, along with the totally immersive multimedia show that explored it, delivered a whopping understanding of the groundbreaking artist’s magnitude and significance. This exhibition from the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum of London explained his weighty and simultaneous presence in the fields of fashion, music, theatre, art and film.
The details of this exhibition more than adequately conveyed the British-born artist and performer’s profound search for, and engagement with, sources of inspiration. In this regard, the exhibition is best understood as an exploration of the relationship between sources of inspiration and the expressions it pulls from those who find it. In the case of Bowie, it conveyed two things. First, it stressed the importance of examining inspirations as a source of self-understanding. Second, it relayed that the depth of consideration of one’s inspirations, along with the understanding of the self it produces, is directly proportional to the depth of its expression and, thus, its social impact and significance.
However, what grabbed my attention was the exhibition’s focus on Bowie’s numerous personae. While exploring the sources of his inspiration, it essentially demonstrated that Bowie’s inspirations helped him assume identities and roles in terms of performance. The exhibition conveyed that his inspirations helped him present personifications that revealed him as an artist while concealing the actuality of his person in enigma. Ironically, by tracing the relationship between the artist and his inspirations, the exhibition revealed many things about him. Primary among them is the depth of insight and self-understanding that guided his performance from his youth.
Contained within this ambient exhibition were the costumes and videos of performances that conveyed the flamboyance, artistry, confidence, and the strangeness that permeated the performances that marked Bowie’s emergence into notoriety. Even a brief survey of Bowie’s performances on record in the exhibition – especially those on Saturday Night Live – convey a system of visual expression so committed to unabashed creativity that it can still register as an expression so enigmatic that it appears, well, strange.
This leads me to a comparison with Stefani Germanotta in her incarnation as Lady Gaga. I know that relating the emerging with the established can be a dangerous game. However, I take this risk only for the sake of contextualizing and explaining Ms. Germanotta as both an artist and a social phenomenon.
The superficial aesthetic connections between Germanotta and Bowie can be pretty easy to see. Her early signature lightening bolt on her face and her current smeared makeup harlequin face are both grounded in Bowie. The topical references to space travel and the very sound of Bowie is on tap in her current album ARTPOP.
However, I would posit that the deeper connections between these artists are established along the lines of persona. Germanotta, like Bowie, uses persona as a means to, simultaneously, express and protect the self. For her, Bowie presents the model of flamboyance, extravagance, and spectacle. Following her model, she uses these elements as a means to accomplish her objectives of simultaneously revealing and concealing herself.
The conceptual distance between Germanotta and Bowie emerges along the lines of the extent that conscious personification plays a part of her aesthetic practice. What she seems to be adding to the equation is her practice of pulling the theatrics from the stage and bringing them into the realm of everyday life.
Whereas Bowie often performed as Ziggy Stardust and other characterizations, Germanotta has created a more holistic portrayal- Lady Gaga. As a result, what is implicit in Bowie has been made explicit in Gaga. Though both artists stressed an emphasis on the valuation of individualism, Gaga does so with a significantly larger dose of playful audacity.
In her rendering of herself as “Mother Monster”, she presents herself as both model and protector. This particular element of the Gaga persona suggests the cultural reality that those who practice authentic individualism will, inevitably, experience a resultant alienation through of vilification. The Mother Monster motif adds an almost religious flavor to the model she is putting forth. This kind of nerve was not on display in Bowie.
Gaga’s audacity and its extravagances manifest in the areas beyond the stage that, typically, defines the realm of performance. Her public appearances in a meat dress or while being carried incased in an egg are just two examples of the many spectacles that have escaped the stage and entered into the public and sphere. These, and other practices like them, have won Gaga only limited applause and abundant alienation.
If freed to speculate, I would posit that these practices of aesthetic audacity are indicative of Gaga’s desire to enact an expression of magical realism. The motive of this expression seems to challenge the cultural sense that drives dry, cold, and stark conformist realism. Her practices of extreme and flagrant social extravagances assaults conformity and suggests an expression of an individualism that lies somewhere between society’s sense of reserved norms and the extremes of her own expressions. In her practice, she forges an imagination for new boundaries for what is socially possible and acceptable. Unlike Bowie, she seeks to model an individualism that extends beyond the protective realm of the stage – an area where such extravagances are expected and accepted by the general public.
I would also posit that this practice of social extravagance is indicative of a fundamental insecurity in Germanotta. She has, of course, confessed this. On several occasions, she has stated that, when feeling insecure, she wears such overdone paraphernalia for a sense of “protection.” This is, of course, verbosity as a protective preemptive strike. Again, a model of behavior is put forth.
While standing in the midst of David Bowie is in the heart of Toronto, a question of Bowie’s stability raised in my mind. I caught myself wondering what all this invention and reinvention meant in regard to self-understanding. I did catch myself wondering if this process reflected a complete absence of a centering self – even neurosis. However, it was clear from the exhibition that the longevity, breadth, and depth of Bowie’s work proved that this process of invention and reinvention was a legitimate expression of a conscious self-exploration for the purposes of deepening self-understanding. His career was, after all, the proof in the pudding.
Only time will tell if Germanotta’s expression will do the same thing. It is my hope that it would.