David Bowie is at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Saturday, October 5th, 2013. Filed under: Toronto

David Bowie as Aladdin Sane (1972), photographed by Brian Duffy.

A visit to an exhibition sparks a remarkable memory.  Once upon a time in Toronto…


I first saw the blockbuster exhibition David Bowie is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London this spring and couldn’t wait to see it here at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The V&A show had much the feel of a rock concert: an endless lineup for tickets, inching through the galleries jostled by crowds, feeling that I was seeing more heads and bodies than spectacle. As I walked into the press preview at the AGO, I wondered: could this installation possibly be better than it had been at the V&A?  It felt roomier, spread out over two floors. I was able to get closer to display cases, soak up more detail and information, notice much I missed in London. The amazing 3D sound experience created by Sennheiser transported me to other eras, immersing me in sensation–and memories.

The ‘Starman’ area of the exhibition features the Freddie Burretti jumpsuit David Bowie wore on Top of the Pops, July 5, 1972. The performance plays on a mirrored background, for an immersive experience.

The exhibition is the first international show devoted to the groundbreaking musician and style icon credited with having a seismic impact on British society and culture. Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum were given unprecedented access to David Bowie’s personal archive (so large he has a full-time curator). Spanning five decades, the 300 objects in the exhibition include handwritten lyrics, diary entries, instruments, music, videos, set designs, photographs, film memorabilia and over 50 stage costumes.

Ogling all this finery, I remembered something startling.  This legendary glam god was the same quiet, elfin man I’d encountered once, here in Toronto. Yes, folks, in one of life’s great Forrest Gump moments, I not only met David Bowie, I held hands with him.

David Bowie is, the Early Years

David Bowie is documenting the artist’s early years and influences that included Clockwork Orange, German cabaret and Kabuki theatre.

Long ago, in another life and galaxy far away, I was working in a posh Yorkville art gallery. My duties were to answer the telephone politely (in case it was a multimillionaire wanting to buy something by the Group of Seven for the ‘cottage’), try to remember people’s names (in an excruciating moment I forgot Gordon Pinsent’s), maintain archives, dip out for trays of cappuccinos and stroll up Avenue Road to choose fresh flowers for openings.

I was stuffing invitation envelopes at my desk near the front of the gallery when Mr. David Jones Bowie walked in. Dressed in dark, anonymous clothing, wearing a fanny pack I think, he nodded at me and I instantly recognized his unusual bicoloured eyes. My heart began to pound, I held my breath and watched gobsmacked as the most influential idol of my formative years wandered from painting to painting, really looking at them, discussing them softly with his dainty companion.

David Bowie Tokyo Pop costume

Bowie collaborated with many designers including Kansai Yamamoto who created this vinyl Tokyo Pop jumpsuit for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. Doesn’t it look like a record?

When they drifted toward the door, I couldn’t hold back. I vaulted out from behind my desk, eight months pregnant, effectively blocking the exit. I held out my hand, he took it. I gushed something about having being a fan since middle school, described how I would track down each new album in shops on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, back in the early days of Bowie’s career when they weren’t so easy to find. The handshake became a double-hand clutch, Bowie listening intently, holding my eyes with his own, murmuring soft replies.  He knew where I came from. He’d been to Winnipeg, on a last-minute addition to a tour schedule. Incredibly, I’d missed that concert because I’d been in Fort McMurray working a summer job. We stood like that in the gallery, hands clasped, for minutes.  When I noticed a crowd beginning to form, I dropped his hands, thanked him and he slipped quietly away.

Over the years, whenever I remembered the incident, I wondered whether I’d imagined his warmth and kindness.  The seductive charm Bowie was able to exert from a young age to get what he wanted is well documented in Starman, the definitive biography by Paul Trynka.  And aren’t actors always acting? Trained to gaze into their co-stars’ eyes and feign emotion?  Had it been a real moment of understanding or did Bowie just have the best manners I’ve ever seen? I guessed I’d never know.

Bowie wanted ‘the music to look like it sounds’.

As the songs that had struck such a chord with fourteen-year-old me surrounded me at the AGO exhibition, tuning in and fading out the way they used to when I searched radio stations for Bowie tunes late at night in my room, I realized my answer lay in his music.  David Bowie could have sung about blurred lines and wrecking balls but he didn’t. He was a captivating storyteller, each album a fully-realized vision with very human themes. Bowie’s lyrics are thoughtful, sometimes cautionary, often encouraging:  a Starman waits in the sky, wants to meet us, tells us not to blow it because he knows we’re all worthwhile. You’re not alone, take my hand. We can be heroes.

Why I like living in Toronto: AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum in conversation with Victoria & Albert curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, under the AGO staircase designed by Frank Gehry.

As V&A curator Victoria Broackes said at the AGO press preview, David Bowie is about the past 50 years so David Bowie is about all of us.  The show will be in Toronto until November 27, 2013, after which it heads to Chicago, Sao Paulo and Paris. For exhibition tickets and information on related events, see the Art Gallery of Ontario.

David Bowie is on Bloor Street, Toronto, in the window of Holt Renfrew, a sponsor of the AGO exhibition.

 The world has Bowie on the brain this fall:

BBC History magazine wants you to vote for the best-dressed Brit of all time. Of course it’s Bowie! Vote here until October 15:  http://www.historyextra.com/bestdressed

‘Genius rock icon’ reads about a book a day. Here are David Bowie’s top 100 favorite books:  http://www.welovethisbook.com/news/david-bowies-top-100-books-revealed

V&A’s international touring schedule for David Bowie is:  http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/touring-exhibition-david-bowie-is/

New on The Movie Network this week, the BBC documentary David Bowie: Five Years. Rare, unseen footage from early 70s.

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