INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Forbes SEPTEMBER 18, 2014 - by Ruth Blatt
HOW TO LEAD LIKE BOWIE: THOUGHTS ON THE 'DAVID BOWIE IS' EXHIBITION
David Bowie is looking at you, kid. Literally. In his most iconic images and performances - the video to "Heroes", his first television performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops, on magazine and album covers - he stares directly at the viewer. And for many kids, that stare was a call to action. Here was this regular guy from a working-class suburb of London putting on a show that defied convention and definition. Was he human or alien? Man or woman? Gay or straight? Vulnerable or powerful? David Bowie took great creative and professional risks because he had something to say. And when he made eye contact with his gaping viewers, he was putting the ball in their court to express themselves too.
Many took up the challenge. Bowie's influence is everywhere: not just in music (artists such as Lady Gaga, Boy George and Janelle Monée are among many of the indebted), but also in fashion, design and lifestyle. "There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting," writes the philosopher Simon Critchley in his recent book, Bowie.
Bowie's work affects everyone differently. On September 23 the exhibition David Bowie Is... opens in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and the accompanying documentary of the exhibit will begin a run of a hundred theaters across the United States. Together, the film and exhibit provide a sweeping overview not only of Bowie's multifaceted career but also of how he has impacted his fans, other artists and culture at large.
A "Periodic Table of Bowie" created for the exhibit visually represents Bowie's influences and legacy. Entries include Gb for Greta Garbo, Pi for Pablo Picasso, Dy for Bob Dylan, Mz for Morrissey and Mq for Alexander McQueen. Other items include costumes from his shows, notes and sketches, and artifacts from his personal life. "Bowie's influence on art, fashion, music and society has been greater than any other artist of the modern age," Hamish Hamilton, the award-winning director of the documentary, told me. The exhibit allows viewers to experience not only the diversity of Bowie's creations, but also the common themes that run across his career.
One of those themes is self-liberation. "Bowie constantly explored new creative territory and took massive risks. He was willing to fail, and there are superb lessons in that," Hamilton told me. One of his first risky acts was to perform Starman on Top Of The Pops with his spiky orange Ziggy Stardust hair, daintily made up face and a colourful cat suit. He put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson's shoulder. British men didn't do that in 1972. And then he sang, "I had to phone someone so I picked on you hoo hoo," staring at the camera and pointing at the viewer. Bowie also took a risk by declaring that he was gay in an interview in which he also discusses his wife and young son.
"Viewers of the exhibit [in London] constantly said that Bowie made them feel like it's OK to be different, to think differently, to express yourself differently." Hamilton says he hopes viewers will come out of the movie inspired to write, create, design or otherwise be who they want to be.
One of the reason's Bowie's work is so empowering is that it is ambiguous and thereby open to interpretation. As he himself has said, artists do not own the meaning of their art. "There is not authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings." Bowie infused his creative process with elements of randomness to facilitate this ambiguity, such as William Burroughs's cut-up techniques or Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards. In the 1990s he invented the Verbasizer, a computer program that scrambles up sentences he feeds into it. "What you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings, and topics and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other," Bowie explains in an interview shown in the documentary. "I can then re-imbue it with an emotive quality if I want to, or take it as it writes itself."
According to Michael Darling, the Museum of Contemporary Art's chief curator, Bowie's ambiguity and risk-taking are the secret to his longevity. "Artists who are willing to completely give up something that's successful because they've milked it for everything it's worth... really [are] in it for all the right reasons," he told me.
Bowie killed many of his successful creations, starting from his first alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, who lies in a coffin at the exhibit. Ziggy was replaced by Bowie's next incarnation, Aladdin Sane (A Lad Insane?) and then The Thin White Duke. "His career is about constant reinvention," Darling added. "I think people are going to come away from the exhibit thinking, 'Wow, this guy never rested. He never sat on his laurels; he was always pushing it.'"
The documentary shows visitors to the exhibit finishing the sentence "David Bowie is..." The responses ranged from "genius" to "cultural icon" to "the ultimate chameleon." But the most telling one was a middle-aged black woman declaring: "David Bowie is mine."
There is a lesson in this for leaders. You can empower and make a connection with your followers by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and showing different sides of yourself. Like Bowie, when you take that risk, you liberate others from their fears and inhibitions. You make them feel less alone in their doubts. Like Bowie, you can convince people, by example, that they need not feel confined by who they are at the moment. As Critchley wrote, "Bowie let us (and still lets us) believe that we can reinvent ourselves." By passing the torch of creative possibility onward, we can get others to believe likewise.