David Bowie is

From the mod-teen of David Jones to the androgynous space alter ego of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie has sported eye-patches, shaved eyebrows, heavy make-up, one-legged leotards to short-cut blazers and distressed frock coats. ‘David Bowie is’ explores the creative process of Bowie’s unique and diverse career as a musical innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting style and continual ‘ch-ch-changes’ across five decades.

Organised by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition has embarked on an international tour with The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), as part of Melbourne’s Winter Masterpieces, the only Australasian venue. With over 300 objects, ‘David Bowie is’ grants access to this internationally acclaimed artist and performer’s personal archive. Handwritten lyrics, original costumes, photography, film, music videos, set designs, album artwork and rare performance material, as well as interviews with key collaborators are brought together from the David Bowie Archive for the very first time.

Arranged thematically, ‘David Bowie is’ immerses visitors in a spectacular and interactive chronological journey through Bowie’s evolution from his suburban childhood in 1950s London, to inner and outer space by his many chameleonic character transformations throughout the years, to the early 2000s when he retired from touring. This process of character development is central to his contribution to contemporary culture influencing artists such as Grace Jones, Madonna and Lady Gaga to name a few.

The recurring theme throughout the exhibition, with over 50 stage costumes on display, no matter which way you turn, left or right, you are confronted with fashion – ‘Ooh, fashion!’ From his Ziggy Stardust jumpsuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, to Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973), and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997).

The exhibition also exposes the groundbreaking artist’s collaborations with artists and designers in the fields of sound, graphics, theatre, art and film, demonstrating Bowie’s creativity and the power of influence. Throughout the exhibition, his own influences are evident; musicians like Little Richard, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno; artists Andy Warhol, and novelist George Orwell, filmmakers Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick, playwright Bertolt Brecht, German Expressionist painter Erich Heckel and Japanese author Yukio Mishima.

The exhibition concludes with a video wall, surrounded by some of Bowie’s best costume pieces, on which we witness some of his greatest hits. By mixing video footage with dressed mannequins and the inclusion of mirrors, the exhibition creates a three-dimensional feel. It produces a space in which the viewer can interact with the displays, delve deep into the mind of David Bowie and submerge in his self-created thematic world. A personal headset creates an intimate guide through the labyrinth of items on display, turning the average gallery space into an immersive experience with its own soundtrack.

Over the years, Bowie has created a ‘magic dance’ of theatrics and reinvention. Renowned for his music and fashion, by including personal pieces such as lyrics, sketchbooks and artworks, we are able to establish a connection between song, video and costume as we discover that each persona, lyric and album was carefully conceived, further contributing to the enigmatic question: who is David Bowie?

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image
16 July to 1 November, 2015

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973
Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973
Photograph of David Bowie by Brian Duffy

Courtesy the David Bowie Archive, and the Victoria and Albert Museum