Tuesday, 12 January 2016

A lifelong relentless curiosity – David Bowie’s creative legacy

After the concert, SO36, West Berlin, 1982. Photo by Anno Dittmer, Geniale Dilletanten exhibition, RMIT Gallery.

By Evelyn Tsitas

David Bowie, who has just died of cancer at the age of 69, was more than a pop star. It is no surprise that as news of his death became known the internet was flooded with respectful, grief filled tributes as people tried to grasp the complexity of Bowie’s career and creativity.

Only days ago, and without announcing he had cancer, Bowie released his 25th album, Blackstar, filled with songs that focused on death. Last month, Lazarus, the new musical featuring Bowie’s songs, and inspired by Bowie’s starring role in the 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earthopened to mixed reviews in New York.

Despite his terminal illness Bowie was creatively active at an age when so many people have retired from creating anything new. Bowie remained so contemporary, so fresh and exciting because he was so willing to challenge and take risks.

It is no wonder then that Bowie’s music has been called the soundtrack to a generation and he has influenced countless musicians. Everyone from Iggy Pop to Sir Paul McCartney, from Madonna to Ricky Gervais, Kanye West to Midge Ure and British Prime Minister David Cameron have come forward with their own tributes on how Bowie inspired them.

And of course, as well as collective grief his fans are in shock. Despite Bowie’s heart attack in 2004 and lack of touring in recent years his insatiable creative curiosity, vibrant mind and constant reinvention made it seem like he would continue to evolve forever. He had just celebrated his 69th birthday. He had just put out an album.

Now he is gone.

The platitude ‘age is just a number’ takes on a new meaning when applied to the curious, to the intellectually hungry, and to the creative mind. That’s the energy that fuelled Bowie’s output.

British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.”

Indeed – Bowie mastered the art of the narrative, via visual and aural mediums. He was a consummate storyteller, drawing on the history of so many art forms. Yes, he is gone, but we can follow the bread crumbs he left behind, picking our way through Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Marshal McLuhan, Kansai Yamamoto, Nicholas Roeg, Lord Byron, Vaslav Nijinsky, Beau Brummell, and of course, Lindsay Kemp, whose influence can be seen so strongly in Bowie’s physical performances.

Bowie didn’t go to art school, but he never stopped exploring, learning, and finding inspiration outside music. He pushed the boundaries when it came to his exploration of drugs, but his creativity also seemed to provide a self-protective mechanism from absolute destruction. He spent his “Berlin years” - from 1976 to 1979 - in both retreat from drugs and in finding new creative inspiration in West Berlin, when late-night sessions with Iggy Pop in clubs such as the Dschungel and SO36 helped fuel three highly acclaimed albums: Heroes, Low and Lodger. These are also the years and subculture celebrated in the current Goethe Institut touring exhibition Geniale Dilletanten: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s, now showing at the RMIT Gallery until 27 February.

The opportunity to explore inside Bowie’s extraordinary, interdisciplinary creative process has made the exhibition David Bowie Is the most successful exhibition ever staged by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The exhibition, seen by over 1.3 million people worldwide at sell-out shows in London, Chicago, Sao Paolo, Paris, Berlin, and Melbourne (at ACMI), is now is currently at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, which was due to be closed on Monday, but opened its doors to allow fans to see the exhibition and sign a book of condolence.

Bowie reinvented himself and his music constantly, but as academic and social critic Camille Paglia notes in her catalogue essay for the Bowie Is exhibition, “Music was not only or even the primary mode through which Bowie first conveyed his vision to the world: he was an iconoclast who was also an image maker.”

Paglia notes that Bowie’s flair for choreography and body language has been developed by his study of pantomime and stagecraft with the innovative Lindsay Kemp troupe in London in the 1960s.
What Bowie learned about movement at the beginning of his career and the power of the body to express emotion through movement he takes with him to express the inevitability of his demise.

Perhaps one of the most important things we can learn from Bowie is that creative reinvention and relevance come through lifelong learning – that intellectual and creative curiosity doesn’t have a time frame on it.

In his catalogue essay for the Bowie Is exhibition, award winning British broadcaster and composer Howard Goodall writes that Bowie’s discovery of the catalogue of German-American composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) “was made not as part of a university syllabus…but as an intrigued, self-motivated adult.”

As we reflect on Bowie’s legacy, take some of his lessons into our creative lives. Find inspiration in books, in art and in music, in collaborations with others, and in the works of the past. Don’t ever stop learning, or pursuing the creative work that you love.

Geniale Dilletanten: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s is showing at the RMIT Gallery until February 27.