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David Bowie is back, surprisingly, after retiring ten years ago. He does so, launching a video of the first song of his future new record. A video directed by the artist Tony Oursler. On his return he also establishes ties with another contemporary artist; Jonathan Barnbrook, author of the conceptual record cover.
The release of the album coincides with a retrospective organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, that shows clothing designs, drawings, paintings, photographs, collage, etc.…all creations by Bowie. His return in association with other artists, as much as with this exhibition, leads me to ask the question; should one consider Bowie a contemporary artist? I’m referring in the “official” sense, comparing him with the artists who appear in the tomes by Taschen.
David Bowie studied at an art college and even though since he was young his interest centred on music, his deviations into other disciplines were constant, such as the apprenticeship in avant-garde theatrical methods with Lindsay Kemp. Bowie, at the beginning of the 70s, was one of a large number of English musicians with art college backgrounds. They conceived their records and concerts according to aesthetic parameters, introducing elements that stemmed from painting, performance and video, such as Queen or Roxy Music. Although, undoubtedly, the pioneers were the American band, The Velvet Underground (under the guidance of Andy Warhol, to whom Bowie would dedicate a song on his record Hunky Dory, and who he interpreted in Julian Schabel’s film, “Basquiat”), that was one of Bowie’s first sources of inspiration. The results of these extrinsically musical influences were brilliant, the tours of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs.
His relation to contemporary art grew stronger half way through the seventies, not because he was a temporary neighbour of Balthus in Switzerland, which he was, so much as because he began to study and familiarise himself with the work of avant-garde artists and, finally, to draw and paint. During these years, above all the time he spent in Berlin, he declared that painting was for him as important as music, and he had the aim of elevating pop to the Fine Arts. The results of his experimental recordings and the conception of records alongside another musician-artist, Brian Eno, were amazing: Low, Heroes (in the song “Joe the Lion” there is a reference to the artist Chris Burden) and Lodger. An era, the Berlin one, that is remembered in the cover by Barnbrook and in the video by Oursler. Incidentally one of the works that can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum is the “cut-up” (technique of literary creation invented by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, based on the free association of words) that led him to compose the lyrics of the song “Blackout”, on the record Heroes. His development as a painter is not that relevant, despite the odd solo exhibition, such as in the Gallery in Cork Street in London, where the critics showed no clemency. His activity as a musician-artist is also not exclusive; others such as Ron Wood, Bob Dylan, Paul McArtney and Lou Reed have also made incursions, to greater or lesser success.
The closest approximation between music/art was produced in the album “Outside”, in 1995, once again, with Brian Eno. A conceptual record based on a sort of detective story, in which the proposition is whether crime can be considered an art form. It refers to the Venice Biennale, Picasso’s Minotaur, the artists of Viennese Actionism, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, once again the performer Chris Burden and the essay “Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts” by Thomas De Quincey (1828). In the videos and on tour Bowie is presented as an artist in a trance, with an aesthetic inspired in Viennese actionism.
At the end of this decade he throws himself in to supporting art by becoming one of the editorial team of the magazine “Modern Painters” (interviewing Balthus and Damian Hirst, with whom he also made a work of art), founding the editorial “21” that publishes books specialised in contemporary art. He strengthened his facet as an art collector (amongst others, he has several pieces by Peter Lanyon) and set up the virtual space “Bowieart”, a website that functions as a gallery for young artists.
But as if that wasn’t enough, he launched an up until then unknown artist called Nat Tate, his publishing company publishing a book about the artist (a launch he made in Jeff Koons’ house). Many critics affirmed they knew Tate, who lamentably committed suicide when he was only 32 years old. Well, more lamentable was the fact that it was all a joke of Bowie’s; Nat Tate (the name comes from the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery) never existed it was a joke played on journalism and the art world, at that point immersed in the hysteria of the “Young British Artists”. And principally on those art critics who always say, “oh, yes, I knew this artist personally, we played bridge together”.
Due to Bowie’s continuous and marked relation with contemporary art, his latest collaboration with Tony Oursler shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’d already worked with him on the record and tour, Earthly and in a piece exhibited at the Hirshorn Museum. In his comeback video, “Where are we now?” he becomes one of Oursler’s works and appears with Oursler’s wife, the artist Jacqueline Humphries. The three have been friends for a long time now, going to museums together and passing the time talking about art. I interviewed Tony Oursler about the video with Bowie, and asked him who knew more about art, he or David; “the guy has an encyclopaedic knowledge about art history and he definitely knows more about specific areas than I do. However, for us, it is always more about establishing an open conversation, and it’s incredibly special. And as we already know, David Bowie is probably the best artist in the world”.
Rumour has it that Bowie is working on an artist’s book based on works and objects of his own creation. Maybe this will provide the solution to the question of whether he can be considered a contemporary artist or “simply” the best artist musician in the world. Probably.
David Bowie and contemporary art
“I am only interested in visionary art to the extent that it is involved in immanent struggles”: Lars Bang Larsen
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)