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David Bowie at Philharmonie de Paris



Boots for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973) Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive © Victoria and Albert Museum

David Bowie 
Philharmonie de Paris
221, avenue Jean-Jaurès 75019 Paris
Métro : Porte de Pantin


I have always been OK with Bowie’s brand of dreaming in slogans and pictograms, but given the product-star-fuck-fiasco The Björk Experience at
MoMA and my recent exasperation with the Video Portrait of Lady Gaga at Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms show at the Louvre, I was hesitant. But I bit the chameleonic bullet and dropped in on the Paris stop of David Bowie Is, a show I had turned my nose up at when in Chicago last year. Is he
from Earth or Outer Space?

Probably more rightly, David Bowie Is was launched at the Victoria and Albert Museum (a fashion and design museum) and then went to Berlin at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, (originally a museum of applied arts). But I was puzzled as to why it appeared in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art (a contemporary art museum). But now this crowd-pleaser gender-bender show has stopped at The Philharmonie of Paris (a music museum), where it seems to belong (again). The context is right and the building itself looks like a crash-landed star ship.

Entrance to David Bowie Is at Philharmonie de Paris, photo taken by the author

Located in the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, this space includes a concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel that only opened last January, where I saw Glenn Branca perform the world premiere of his “Symphony No. 16 (Orgasm)” a short time ago. I went on a sunny spring day and was gobsmacked by the number of people already waiting inside to get into the show. You could have thought that it was a live concert. Is he a boy or a girl?

When in, I picked up some headphones and went with the geolocated flow through the hundreds of objects on view from the Bowie archive, accompanied by the fascinating soundtrack of personal reminisents and music audio clips. For me, that audio was the most interesting part of the poseur show. Looking at costumes, photos, handwritten lyrics, letters, posters, sketches laying out compositions of album covers, storyboards for music videos, correspondence with costume designers and other boring memerobilia is kind of a multidisciplinary drag. A drag even if they are all about smug bombasticly trendy Davie Jones (David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, Major Tom, Halloween Jack, et cetera, et cetera, whatever). Jones is a man with disposable identities in a time of disposable incomes.

All that fan stuff hardly provides an even slightly comparable visceral and atavistic experience that the music can have. Happily that part came in the last large room of the show, where concert footage is projected on all four walls, edge to edge, blowing the minds of teenagers and their parents.

In that massive room (with the headphones off) along with many other people, that media show approximated the feeling of being at a Bowie concert. There the red-booted, red-haired, jumpsuit-clad Bowie singing Starman on Top of the Pops came alive again. Bowie is just riveting when he performs onstage as Ziggy. “Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do”

The exhibit does a satisfactory task of contextualizing Bowie’s speedy attempts at outwiting and outmanoeuvring his audience by pointing out Bowie’s various influences: D.H. Lawrence, Colin MacInnes, Eric Dolphy, sex androgyny, mime, Gilbert & George, Kabuki theater, Victor Vasarely, Stanley Kubrick, Mishima, Bertolt Brecht, cabaret, Andy Warhol, random word generators, William S. Burroughs.

David Bowie, Cut-up lyrics for “Blackout’ from Heroes, (1977) Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive © Victoria and Albert Museum  

All that is fine. But with too much other back-stage souvenirs, you also pick up on how Bowie controls the hell out of his shtick. His control over the costumes and set designs, musicians, choreographers, artists, photographers, designers, stylists, decorators and lighting design. That means he also must take the blameworthiness for the incredibly wooden “Let’s Dance” video he made, along with one of the worst videos of all time, his 1985 hackneyed duet with Mick Jagger, grating to course glass the lovely Martha and the Vandellas song “Dancing In The Street.” It’s all very intense, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really, but does little more than dully exasperate.

Bowie at his best is grandiosity reached orbit, as with his Ziggy Stardust. That work was inexpressive of the hype to follow. It reached subversive trajectory, according to English philosopher Simon Critchley in his slight, silly but fun book BOWIE, based on his discovering the glam icon in 1972 at age twelve. I have trailed the public proclamations Critchley makes on art since his Giessen, Germany talk in 2010 where he harangued-on about contemporary art’s dominant trend: the in-authenticity of “mannerist situationism” based in rituals of reenactment. In his essay Absolutely-Too-Much in the Brooklyn Rail, Critchley goes on in 2012 to describe the art circumstances further, as “cold mannerist obsessionality” with a  “taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.” This trait is on chock-a-block display in David Bowie Is with Bowie’s own painting “Head of Mishima” (1971) as prime example. It is a fairly competent example of neo-expressionist painting created from the stylistic discoveries of German Expressionist painting. To be fair, that taste for appropriation was accuracy suggested in the show with the inclusion of Erich Heckel “Self-Portrait” (1917) woodcut.

I’m sure there are others than Critchley who also find something profound about post-Ziggy Bowie. Critchley calls him the person who has given him the most pleasure throughout his life. But for me, after Ziggy, what you have here is a guy being too pithy and too cha-cha-changing for his own good.

David Bowie, “Untitled” (1975-6) Photo-montage made from David James stills of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Photographies © STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Partial view of last room of David Bowie Is at Philharmonie de Paris, photo taken by the author



Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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