In the upscale Jardins neighborhood, the Museu da Imagem e do Som (Image and Sound Museum) currently houses the exhibition simply titled David Bowie, originally from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
As a major David Bowie fan, I had made a mental note the exhibition was coming to São Paulo when I heard about it on the news over a year ago. Even though it’s been going on for nearly two months now, there were still plenty of people waiting in line to see the exhibit. Sadly photography is prohibited, which is just as well, as I probably would have never left the building.
I was expecting to see costumes and maybe vintage posters and records, but it was so much more. It was insight into Bowie’s creative process and evolution as an artist. Each visitor receives a headset that is programmed to play the music or video audio at each respective point, a soundtrack for the exhbit. The space itself has a plethora of objects including storyboards, mockups of album covers (often sketched by Bowie himself), mood boards for his tour costumes and notebook paper with scribbled lyrics. In a video, Bowie demonstrates a computer program that randomly generates sentences, which he uses as prompts for story lines or lyrics. His favorite books float above, and include A Clockwork Orange, Lolita and 1984. (I noticed a number of the books were editions in Portuguese. I wondered if the original curator at V&A sent the people at MIS a PDF list of his favorites and they scoured the city for vintage looking editions to display.)
And yes, there are costumes. Glorious costumes. The first one to greet you at the entrance is the stunning Tokyo Pop vinyl jumpsuit (see the poster above), designed by Kamai Yamamoto for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. Yamamoto also designed for the tour a Japanese cape with kanji characters that phonetically spell out “David Bowie” and roughly translate to “one who spits out words in a fiery manner.” There’s the coat with the tattered Union Jack, designed by Alexander McQueen and worn for the cover of his 1997 album Earthling. In one corner stands the tailored ice-blue suit from the “Life on Mars?” video, while another section holds his more demure Berlin-inspired suits from his Thin White Duke period. For someone who made his mark with his gender-bending aesthetic, he has quite a number of modest (if beautifully crafted) suits on display.
One costume that stood out to me was an exaggerated Bauhaus tuxedo he wore to perform “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979. The video of his performance plays alongside it, which shows him being carried to the front to sing, as if he were a doll, only to be carried back in the end. The stark, minimal stage lighting is inspired by the lighting in Cabaret.
One of the backup singers who carries him is German opera and pop performer Klaus Nomi, who would later don a similar suit and make it his signature look.
The three minute appearance with its simultaneous theatricality and restraint is one of the most intriguing pop performances I’ve ever seen.
If there’s one sort of downside to the exhibit, it’s that sometimes the trajectory can be a bit confusing. While it starts with his breakout song “Space Oddity,” there’s no chronological order or real clear way of how the artifacts (Can you call objects from the seventies artifacts?) are organized. One exception is the space that showcases his acting career, including an original The Elephant Man playbill and a crystal ball from Labyrinth. (My nine year old self squealed at that one.)
The David Bowie experience doesn’t stop with the exhibit. Last month, MIS held a special screening of Bowie’s films, and this past weekend they had activities for kids, including workshops to learn about instruments, design their own vinyl album cover, and create their own Bowie masks. Also there’s a karaoke booth outside for the
drunk carefree. The exhibit runs until April 20th.