Posts Tagged ‘sexual ambiguity

15
Oct
15

Text / exhibition: ‘David Bowie is’ at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 16th July – 1st November 2015

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces

 

 

This text was written for a special LGBTQI themed edition of the peer reviewed journal Fashion, Style and Popular Culture. At short notice, the co-editor asked me to write, and I quote, “a queer focussed review of the Bowie exhibition at ACMI.” When I delivered the piece below, it was rejected as not being academic enough. Apparently they wanted a deconstruction of the exhibition, its layout, construction, themes, lighting, and good and bad points. No mention of LGBTQI issues mind you. What the kind of review they wanted has to do with a LGBTQI themed issue, I have absolutely no idea. If they had known anything about my writing, they would have known they would not get academic speak, but something a little more interesting. Their loss, our gain.

The text focuses on Bowie’s impact on me at the time, as a gay man. Bowie is tight. Singing my all time favourite track of his, Young Americans, Bowie is a vocalist like no other. What a voice. Team that with charisma, soul, style, and all the moves … hands on hips, guitar slung backwards, padded shoulders to die for, cheekbones that you could cut with a knife and a presence that is just luminous. No wonder I loved him as an adolescent, he was my Hero. As someone commented on the YouTube live performance of the song (below), “ain’t there 1 goddam song that can make me breakdown + cry*”

This is a flawed but mesmerising exhibition. Allow three to fours hours at least. If you are a Bowie fan it’s a 100% must see; and if you are an aficionado of contemporary culture, you will be amazed at the sources Bowie draws from to create his art, his personas. It did no harm, either, that Bowie had access to some of the most creative designers in the world for his costumes and sets, but he was the inventive force. What a man, what an artist, not just a man who feel to earth, but a man who changed the world.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

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Many thankx to ACMI for allowing me to publish the art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. Download the text Reflections on David: In a galaxy all of his own (kb pdf)

 

 

Bowie performing on Dick Cavett Show (4 of December 1974)

 

 

Reflections on David: In a galaxy all of his own

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The year was 1975. In London, six years after that seminal event of early gay liberation, the Stonewall Riots, six years after the landing on the moon, and six years after the release of David Bowie’s single, Space Oddity, I came out as a gay man age 17. At the time I felt a bit of a space oddity myself, troubled by my hidden identity and the double life I was leading. My first act of rebellion was to walk into a newsagent at Notting Hill Gate underground station, pick up a copy of Gay Times, fling the money at the store attendant and run from the place as red as a beetroot. I was so embarrassed.

Things quickly changed. I had been listening to Bowie’s music since my early days in boarding school – The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane – and now, after outing myself, I rocked up to the Royal College of Music with silver hair, wearing the most outrageous satin pink and white bomber jacket, with rings on every finger. I walked down St. Albans high street on a Saturday morning through the market in fake white fur coat and eye shadow. It’s only now, forty years later, that I realise I was channelling my inner Bowie.

This was the era of Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in England, where we had to gather in people’s lounge rooms to meet other gay men, or once a month at a disco in country Hertfordshire. Or we went to the Pan Club in Luton where drag queens peered imperiously down at us through a grill before they allowed us through the door. The best thing was going to Scandals or Adams night clubs in London, where we danced on illuminated glass dance floors (like in Saturday Night Fever) and wore our army uniforms. We could be whoever we wanted to be. And this was all influenced by the multiple persona of Bowie.

Like an intelligent bower bird, Bowie constructed his different personae through bricolage, building them from cultural signifiers such as German Expressionism, Marlene Dietrich, Sonia Delaunay, Metropolis, Hollywood, Japanese film, JG Ballard and Clockwork Orange, to name just a few. My gay friends and I did much the same. Like Bowie, for us it wasn’t so much about sexuality but about androgyny and the public play of gender (although the two are obviously interlinked). We adored David, a self-educated lad from a poor working class family, initially a Mod, who created his own universe of creatures and characters. Glam yes, but so much more than just putting on a costume like Kiss, David lived and breathed his worlds and we, his fans, believed in him. Not so much gender bender as cultural gender blender.

Critical to this time in my life was the period that followed Ziggy: Young Americans and the Thin White Duke. I got heavily into soul music, going to a basement nightclub behind Bang on Tottenham Court Road, where they played reggae, Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra… and David Bowie. I used to pretend to be one of the back up singers on the song Young Americans: “Young American, young American, she wants the young American.” Bowie is tight. Singing my all time favourite track of his, Young Americans, Bowie is a vocalist like no other. What a voice. Team that with charisma, soul, style, and all the moves … hands on hips, guitar slung backwards, padded shoulders to die for, cheekbones that you could cut with a knife and a presence that is just luminous. No wonder I loved him as an adolescent, he was my Hero. As someone commented on the YouTube live performance of the song, “ain’t there 1 goddam song that can make me breakdown + cry*”. From talking to other gay men, I know that the Young Americans album was also critical for them – all cinched waist, high cheekbones, eye shadow, padded shoulders, flaming hair and soul music.

Australian disc jockey Stephen Allkins observed the same phenomena in Sydney. In a recent interview with me he commented, “My first introduction to the world of David Bowie was in 1975 when I was a 14 year old gay boy hanging out with my gay cousin, coming out unknowingly together. Young Americans was so damn funky and classy and totally different to anything that was happening in the white music world at the time. I couldn’t quite get my head around the way Bowie had gone from Ziggy and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke and funk in one swoop, but I loved it. It’s hard to put into words how, as everyone else was glamming up, Bowie starting wearing suits and playing with the hottest funk band on the planet. No one else at that time moved or evolved with such speed and ease and he made me believe every look and note. He didn’t copy or just follow a trend to get noticed, he created and influenced several generations of people with his music and visual ideas. I say ideas because what he created visually was more than mere fashion, it became art. Looking back on all he’s done now, all that he did was art – musically, visually and sensually.”

Which leads me on to David Bowie is, an exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne. This is a fascinating but flawed exploration of the life of one of the world’s great artists. To see his early life, influences, and upbringing, and to have access to his personal archives – especially the wonderful sketches and storyboards showing his creative process – is invaluable. One of the strongest elements of the performance is how the exhibition links his art to the many cultural signifiers he used to construct it: from collage to construction. The costumes are magnificent including the additional Australian content, like the Pierrot costume from Ashes to Ashes. To see artefacts such as the original handwritten stanzas of Ziggy Stardust and Fame is as close as many of us will get to the source of greatness.

Much less successful was the thematic layout of the exhibition. Sections on film stars, 1930s, and Berlin cabaret (to name but a few), in non-chronological order, made it difficult to comprehend the development of each character and their place in the flow of time and space. While this assemblage of ideas might mimic how Bowie actually constructed his characters, quickly moving from one to another, and then reviving the same character many years later (for example, Space Oddity‘s Major Tom of 1969 and then creating a sequel in Ashes to Ashes in 1980), the imitative representation, or mimesis, of Bowie’s process in the layout of the exhibition simply did not work. Knowing how important Young Americans was to my own gay history, I searched for about 15 minutes with a guide from the exhibition looking for references to Young Americans and the influence of soul music on Bowie. We eventually found just two Thin White Duke suits tucked away right at the end of the show. In the bowels of the dark, subterranean bunker that is ACMI too many artefacts were crammed into too small a location. The artefacts, the ideas and the art have little room to breathe.

Having said that, this is still a mesmerising exhibition. Allow three to fours hours at least. If you are a Bowie fan it’s a 100% must see; and if you are an aficionado of contemporary culture, you will be amazed at the sources Bowie draws from to create his art, his personas. It did no harm, either, that Bowie had access to some of the most creative designers in the world for his costumes and sets, but he was the inventive force. What a man, what an artist, not just a man who feel to earth, but a man who changed the world. He was REAL, his personae were REAL, his art was REAL. He was an astronaut of inner space and when he looked down the barrel of the lens he spoke to young rebels in an authentic voice. He was our hero and no one else’s. As the singer Sylvester would later say: “You make me feel mighty real.” Chimerical, pansexual David, we love you!

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Dr Marcus Bunyan
October 2015

Word count: 1,390

 

Roy Ainsworth. 'David Bowie in The Kon-rads' 1963

 

Roy Ainsworth
Publicity photograph for The Kon-rads
1963
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

 

David or ‘Davie’ Jones, as he was then known, became heavily involved in London’s burgeoning music scene at a young age. Before leaving school at the age of 16, he had already joined the band The Kon-rads, playing saxophone and singing vocals. Demonstrating the experimental energy that has driven his solo career, Bowie spent the 1960s trying out different musical, artistic and sartorial styles and performing with several different bands. In 1965 he changed his stage name to David Bowie. The exhibition features several objects from Bowie’s early career including sketches of set, costume and poster designs created for his first bands and footage of early performances.

 

Freddie Burretti (designer) 'Quilted two‐piece suit' 1972

 

Freddie Burretti (designer)
Quilted two‐piece suit
1972
Designed by Freddie Burretti for the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

 

On 6 July 1972 David Bowie performed Starman, the first single from his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, on BBC One’s Top of the Pops. This pivotal performance was crucial in making Bowie a music star and is acclaimed as a watershed moment which changed rock music and youth culture forever. Appearing on national television with flame-orange hair, make-up, multi-coloured clothing and red patent boots, Ziggy’s otherworldly look and sexual ambiguity created a seismic shift in pop culture. The exhibition features the original suit and boots created by Freddie Burretti and designed in collaboration with Bowie, who took inspiration from the costumes worn by the ‘droogs’ street gang in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971).

 

Ziggy Stardust | David Bowie

 

Kansai Yamamoto. 'Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour' 1973

 

Kansai Yamamoto (designer)
Masayoshi Sukita (photographer)
Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour
1973
© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive

 

 

Bowie first saw the work of Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto at the exhibition Kansai in London in 1971. He could not afford the original designs so copied the look instead, recruiting friends such as Natasha Korniloff and Freddie Burretti to create cheaper versions of Yamamoto’s signature bodysuits and platform boots. After the success of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie approached Yamamoto and commissioned a set of even more flamboyant stage costumes for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973. These outfits, inspired by the style of Japanese samurai and kabuki actors, are outrageous, sculptural and eye-catching. The exhibition features several Kansai Yamamoto costumes including the black and white striped bodysuit and a white cloak with Japanese kanji lettering spelling out ‘David Bowie’. A flamboyant suit from Yamamoto’s 1971 exhibition which he gifted to the V&A at the time is also on display.

 

'Red platform boots for the 1973 'Aladdin Sane' tour' 1973

 

Red platform boots for the 1973 ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour
1973
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Kansai Yamamoto (designer) 'Metallic bodysuit' 1973

 

Kansai Yamamoto (designer)
Metallic bodysuit
1973
Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Brian Duffy. 'Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane' 1973

 

Brian Duffy
Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane
1973
© Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

 

 

“The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) today launched the critically acclaimed exhibition celebrating one of the most influential artists in music, film and video, fashion and performance. David Bowie is comes to ACMI from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for a strictly limited season from 16 July 2015 as part of the Victorian Government’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series.

Seen by over 1 million people worldwide at sell-out shows in London, Chicago, Sao Paolo, Paris, and Berlin, David Bowie is was conceived by the prestigious V&A in London, where it premiered in March 2013 before quickly becoming V&A’s fastest selling show. This once-in-a-lifetime experience, now in its only Australasian season, is set to take Melbourne by storm.

Drawing upon unprecedented access to objects from the David Bowie Archive, the exhibition charts the extraordinary career of the boy from London who became an iconic artist and cultural innovator. David Bowie is features over 50 legendary costumes, original stage set designs, handwritten lyric sheets, album artwork, rare film, video and photographs, and interviews with key collaborators. Special displays explore the artistic chameleon’s continuing influences as a musician, stage performer, writer and actor.

ACMI Director and CEO, Katrina Sedgwick, says the groundbreaking exhibition is testament to Bowie’s profound and everlasting impact as a true pioneer in music, fashion and culture. “We are thrilled to be hosting the Australian incarnation of David Bowie is… It is an exhibition that not only illuminates the extraordinary breadth of Bowie’s creative genius and his enormous impact over the decades – but it is also a beautifully curated and staged experience that will delight the many thousands of people who will see it in the coming weeks and months.”

The V&A’s curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, from the Museum’s Department of Theatre and Performance, selected more than 300 objects and films for the show. Of the exhibition they said; “We are absolutely delighted to see David Bowie is travel to ACMI. Bowie himself has a long-standing relationship with Australia, including creating the music videos for Let’s Dance and China Girl there. We hope that the exhibition meets the expectations of his extensive Australian fan base.”

The exhibition offers insight into Bowie’s early years and his first steps musical greatness. The creative aspiration of the young David Robert Jones are showcased by early photographs and Bowie’s sketches for stage sets and costumes created for his bands The Kon-rads and The Delta Lemons in the 1960s. Bowie’s first major hit Space Oddity (1969) and the introduction of the fictional character Major Tom inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey granted him critical and commercial success as an established solo artist. His cinematic influences abound with his elaborate storyboards and set design for the Diamond Dogs tour (1974) inspired by Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927).

Excerpts and props from Bowie’s on-screen performance in films including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Labyrinth (1986), Basquiat (1996) and The Prestige (2006) show how Bowie has continually explored different notions of character and drawn together the numerous cultural influences that feed into his work. On display is the original multi-coloured suit worn for the pivotal performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in July 1972. An interactive audio-visual display presents some of Bowie’s most ambitious music videos including DJ (1979) and The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995). Immersive, large-scale projections show recently uncovered footage of Bowie performing Jean Genie on Top of the Pops in 1973 and excerpts from D.A. Pennebaker’s film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973).

Bowie’s collaborations with artists and designers in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theatre, art and film are explored throughout the exhibition. On display are more than 50 stage costumes including Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, 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). An area has been dedicated to the monochrome theatricality of Bowie’s Berlin period and the creation of the Thin White Duke persona identified with the Station to Station album and tour (1976). It also investigates the series of experimental records he produced between 1977 and 1979 whilst living in Germany, known as the Berlin Trilogy.

More personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics are also featured in the exhibition as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores and diary entries, revealing the evolution of his creative ideas. ACMI is the exclusive Australasian venue for a strictly limited season of David Bowie is. The ACMI season includes a curated program of talks and special events, late night programs, film screenings and live performances.”

Press release from ACMI

 

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Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

 

Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit designed by Freddie Burretti (1972)

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

 

Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat designed in collaboration with David Bowie for the Earthling album cover

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

 

David Bowie and Freddie Burretti (designer)
Bodysuit with graphic print (replica)
‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour and album cover
1972

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

 

Kansai Yamamoto striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973)

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition David Bowie is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
Photographer: Mark Gambino

 

 

Exhibition overview

The exhibition offers insight into Bowie’s early years and his first steps towards musical success. Tracing the creative aspirations of the young David Robert Jones (born 1947 in Brixton, London), it shows how he was inspired by innovations in art, theatre, music, technology and youth culture in Britain during the aftermath of the Second World War. Pursuing a professional career in music and acting, he officially adopted the stage name ‘David Bowie’ in 1965 and went through a series of self-styled changes from Mod to mime artist and folk singer to R&B musician in anticipation of the shifting nature of his future career. On display are early photographs and Bowie’s sketches for stage sets and costumes created for his bands The Kon-rads and The Delta Lemons in the 1960s.

This opening section concludes with a focus on Bowie’s first major hit Space Oddity (1969) and the introduction of the fictional character Major Tom, who would be revisited by Bowie in both Ashes to Ashes (1980) and Hallo Spaceboy (1995). Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the single was released to coincide with the first moon landing and was Bowie’s breakthrough moment, granting him critical and commercial success as an established solo artist.

The exhibition moves on to examine Bowie’s creative processes from song writing, recording and producing to his collaborations on costume designs, stage sets and album artwork. Showing how Bowie works within both established art forms and new artistic movements, this section reveals the scope of his inspirations and cultural references from Surrealism, Brechtian theatre and avant-garde mime to West End musicals, German Expressionism and Japanese Kabuki performance. This section traces the influence of these movements on Bowie’s own work, including the evolution of the lavishly produced Diamond Dogs tour (1974), the design of which was inspired by Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) and George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The tour combined exuberant choreography and a colossal set design, taking the combination of rock music and theatre to new heights. On display are previously unseen storyboards for the proposed musical that Bowie would eventually transform into the Diamond Dogs album and touring show.

In addition, this section chronicles Bowie’s innovative approach to creating albums and touring shows around fictionalised stage personas and narratives. 1972 marked the birth of his most famous creation; Ziggy Stardust, a human manifestation of an alien being. Ziggy’s daringly androgynous and otherworldly appearance has had a powerful and continuous influence on pop culture, signaling a challenge of social conventions and inspiring people to shape their own identities. On display is the original multi-coloured suit worn for the pivotal performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in July 1972, as well as outfits designed for stage characters Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke. Costumes from The 1980 Floor Show (1973), album cover sleeves for The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), alongside fan material, highlight Bowie’s fluid stylistic transformations and his impact on social mobility and gay liberation.

Excerpts from Bowie’s on-screen performances in films including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Labyrinth (1986), Basquiat (1996) and The Prestige (2006) show how Bowie has continually explored different notions of character and drawn together the numerous cultural influences that feed into his work. Footage and photography of recording sessions for Outside (1995) and ‘Hours…’ (1999) as well as handwritten lyrics and word collages inspired by William Burroughs’ ‘cut up’ method of writing that have never previously been publicly displayed, reveal Bowie’s working processes from writing to recording.

This expansive retrospective also celebrates David Bowie as a pioneering performer concentrating on key performances throughout his career. An interactive audio-visual display presents some of Bowie’s most ambitious music videos including DJ (1979) and The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995). Immersive, large-scale projections show recently uncovered footage of Bowie performing Jean Genie on Top of the Pops in 1973 and excerpts from D.A. Pennebaker’s film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973).

An area has been dedicated to the monochrome theatricality of Bowie’s Berlin period and the creation of the stylish Thin White Duke persona identified with the Station to Station album and tour (1976). It also investigates the series of experimental and pioneering records he produced between 1977 and 1979 whilst living in Germany, known as the Berlin Trilogy. Finally, David Bowie is features a display of striking performance and fashion photography taken by photographers including Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and John Rowlands. These professional portraits are juxtaposed with a collage of visual projections illustrating Bowie’s immense creative influence and ubiquitous presence in music, fashion and contemporary visual and virtual culture.

 

Freddie Burretti (designer) 'Ice-blue suit' 1972

 

Freddie Burretti (designer)
Ice-blue suit
1972
Designed for the ‘Life on Mars?’ video
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Music video by David Bowie performing Life On Mars? Taken from the album Heroes

 

Kansai Yamamoto (designer) 'Asymmetric knitted bodysuit' 1973

 

Kansai Yamamoto (designer)
Asymmetric knitted bodysuit
1973
Designed for the ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Masayoshi Sukita. 'David Bowie' 1973

 

Masayoshi Sukita
David Bowie
1973
© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive

 

Photograph by Terry O'Neill with colour by David Bowie. 'David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974' 1974

 

Photograph by Terry O’Neill with colour by David Bowie
David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974
1974
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Terry O'Neill. 'Promotional photograph of David Bowie for 'Diamond Dogs'' 1974

 

Terry O’Neill
Promotional photograph of David Bowie for ‘Diamond Dogs’
1974
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

David Bowie – BBC Live – Diamond Dogs & John, I’m Only Dancing (January 1975)

 

David Bowie. 'Photo-collage by David Bowie of manipulated film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth' 1975-6

 

David Bowie
Photo-collage by David Bowie of manipulated film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth
1975-6
Film stills by David James
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive, Film stills
© STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd., Image
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

'Cut up lyrics for 'Blackout' from "Heroes"' 1977

 

Cut up lyrics for ‘Blackout’ from “Heroes”
1977
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

'Print after a self‐portrait by David Bowie' 1978

 

Print after a self‐portrait by David Bowie
1978
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Brian Duffy. 'David Bowie during the filming of the 'Ashes to Ashes' video' 1980

 

Brian Duffy
David Bowie during the filming of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video
1980
© Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

 

'Original storyboards by David Bowie for the 'Ashes to Ashes' video' 1980

 

Original storyboards by David Bowie for the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video
1980
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
© Victoria and Albert Museum

 

David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes

 

 

Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)
Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia

Opening hours:
Open daily, 10am – 5pm (Closed Christmas Day)

ACMI website

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29
May
12

Exhibition: ‘Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

Exhibition dates:  25th February – 3rd June 2012

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“In many ways, Cahun’s life was marked by a sense of role reversal, and her public identity became a commentary upon not only her own, but the public’s notions of sexuality, gender, beauty, and logic. Her adoption of a sexually ambiguous name, and her androgynous self-portraits display a revolutionary way of thinking and creating, experimenting with her audience’s understanding of photography as a documentation of reality. Her poetry challenged gender roles and attacked the increasingly modern world’s social and economic boundaries. Also Cahun’s participation in the Parisian Surrealist movement diversified the group’s artwork and ushered in new representations. Where most Surrealist artists were men, and their primary images were of women as isolated symbols of eroticism, Cahun epitomized the chameleonic and multiple possibilities of the female identity. Her photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary continue to influence countless artists, namely Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Del LaGrace Volcano.”

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Text from Wikipedia

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Cahun was a resistance fighter during the Second World War, was arrested, sentenced to death and survived. She lived with her longtime female partner and collaborator on Jersey from 1937 until 1954, the year of her death. Entre Nous means “Between Us,” such an appropriate title for the their collaboration, love and partnership. What a talent, what a woman and gay to boot!

Many thankx to the Art Institute of Chicago for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1929
Gelatin silver print
24 x 19 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. (C) RMN/Gérard Blot

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1929
Gelatin silver print
11.5 x 8.5 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1928
Gelatin silver print
13.9 x 9 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1927
Gelatin silver print
10.4 x 7.6 cm
Soizic Audouard Collection

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“Claude Cahun (1894-1954) has something approaching cult status in today’s art world. However, her work was almost unknown until the early 1980s, when it was championed by the research of François Leperlier, after which exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes (1994) and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1995) brought it to public attention. Her life and work (both literary and artistic) bespeak an extraordinary libertarian personality who defied sexual, social and ethical conventions in what was an age of avant-garde and moral upheaval. Among her many photographs, it is undoubtedly her self-portraits that have aroused the greatest interest in recent years. Throughout her life, Cahun used her own image to dismantle the clichés surrounding ideas of identity. She reinvented herself through photography, posing for the lens with a keen sense of performance and role-play, dressed as a woman or a man, as a maverick hero, with her hair long or very short, or even with a shaved head. This approach was extended in innovative ways in her photographs of objects and use of photomontages, which asserted the primacy of the imagination and of metamorphosis.

By exploring the many different analyses made of Cahun’s work since the 1990s, and ranging across its different themes: from the subversive self-portraits that question identity, to her surrealist compositions, erotic metaphors and political forays, this exhibition confirms the modernity of a figure who, as a pioneer of self-representation and the poetry of objects, has been an important influence for many contemporary artists.

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Metamorphoses of identity and the subversion of gender (I)

This set of photographs, going from 1913 to the end of the 1920s, includes some of Cahun’s major works, in which she staged her own persona, emphasising disguise and masks, and working through variations on gender: feminine, masculine, androgyne, undifferentiated. Sexual ambiguity is consciously cultivated and calls into question established norms and conventions. In 1928, she even represented herself with her head shaved, wearing a singlet, in profile, or with her hands against her face, or wearing a loose man’s jacket. Some of the mise-en-scènes from this period seem to anticipate contemporary performance.

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Poetics of the object

The “assemblages of objects,” which make their appearance in around 1925, inventively explore what at the time was still a rather new form. This work came to wider attention in the Surrealist exhibition at the Charles Ratton gallery, in May 1936, and then with the commissioning of 22 photographic plates to illustrate a book of poems by Lise Deharme, Le Coeur de Pic (1937), prefaced by Paul Eluard. These photographs capture ephemeral set-ups, often in a natural setting (garden, beach). Each “sketch” is a composition of heterogeneous elements, both found and made, such as knickknacks in spun glass, sewing items, twigs, bones, insects, feathers, gloves, pieces of fabric, shoes, tools, etc. This “theatre of objects” has both a visual and symbolic significance, which Cahun explained in her text Prenez garde aux objets domestiques (1936).

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Metamorphoses of identity and the subversion of gender (continued)

The 1930s saw Cahun continuing to explore images of the self. However, questions of sexual difference and its social and cultural construction were now less to the fore as she went deeper into the potential of situations and disguises and experimented with duplication in a way that extended the work of the photomontages from the late 1920s.

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Metaphors of desire

Eschewing the direct and sometimes reifying display of the female body found in many paintings and photographs, Cahun opted for a more subtle kind of “veiled eroticism” using distance and irony. Here we find some very evocative examples of her calculating games with desire. Whether through the contained display of the body, allegory (the bacchante or faun, surrounded by sensuous vegetation), or anthropomorphic objects (the hermaphroditic “père”), she aimed to capture the essence of desire, to bring out its essential grounding in fantasy.

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The two of us. Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore)

The photograph Entre nous (1926) clearly establishes the spirit of this section, which evokes various aspects of Claude Cahun’s intimate relationship and artistic collaboration with her partner, Suzanne Malherbe. In fact, a number of the photographs here were taken by Suzanne following Claude’s suggestions. A double portrait from 1921 shows a surprising parallel which could be read as a metaphor of their relationship, a deep closeness and understanding between two strong personalities. The linchpin of this section is constituted by the four photomontages used to illustrate Aveux non avenus (1930), Cahun’s most significant literary work, gathering together all the artist’s main themes and obsessive metaphors. The plates were executed by Moore in collaboration with Claude Cahun.

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Elective encounters

This series of portraits, which reflect the importance of friendship in the development of Cahun’s work, gives an idea of the figures who were important to her and influenced her, or to whom she felt close, among them Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Suzanne Malherbe. There are also two photographs from performances at Pierre Albert-Birot’s theatre Le Plateau (1929). They attest Cahun’s keen interest in theatre and acting.

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Poetry and politics

In the 1930s Cahun’s positions grew increasingly radical in response to the rise of totalitarianism. She joined the Surrealists and associated with a number of groups on the left and far left. This radicalisation is reflected in her aesthetic. In line with the ideas put forward in her pamphlet Les Paris sont ouverts (1934), she exploited the subversive qualities of “indirect action” in the sphere of symbolic expression, making a number of objects in which poetry and politics are intimately intertwined. This process culminated when she used these pieces for two big series of photographs dominated by a mood of irony, revolt and provocation: “La Poupée” (The Doll), a figure fashioned out of newspaper, and “Le Théâtre” (The Theatre), a wooden mannequin surrounded by various elements and placed under a glass dome.

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Beyond the visible. The last self-portraits

Close study of Cahun’s photographs reveals the presence of allusions to non-visible phenomena, pointing the way to other realities – and perhaps, too, beyond death. Her attraction to symbolism, her interest in Eastern doctrines and her closeness to Surrealism only confirmed the primacy of fantasy and metamorphosis evidenced in the intellectual and aesthetic approaches she took throughout her life. The series Le Chemin des chats (The Way of Cats, around 1949 and 1953), suggests a mediation on and questioning of reality and appearance. Cahun was a true cat lover: for her, this animal was the great intercessor, the medium of an intuitive contact between the visible and the invisible, leading to sensorial worlds that are both unfamiliar and yet very near.”

Juan Vicente Aliaga and François Leperlier, curators of the exhibition

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1939
Gelatin silver print
10 x 8 cm
Jersey Heritage Collection
© Jersey Heritage

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Claude Cahun
Autoportrait
1926
Gelatin silver print
11.1 x 8.6 cm
IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat

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“Born Lucy Schwob to a family of French intellectuals and writers, Claude Cahun (who adopted the pseudonym at age 22) is best known for the staged self-portraiture, photomontages, and prose texts she made principally between 1920 and 1940. Rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work has not only expanded our understanding of the Surrealist era but also serves as an important touchstone to later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned preexisting notions of self and sexuality. Posing in costumes and elaborate make-up, Cahun appears masked as various personae: man or woman, hero or doll, both powerful and vulnerable. Almost a century after their making, these innovative photographs and assemblages remain remarkably relevant in their treatment of gender, performance, and identity.

From her university years until her death, Cahun was accompanied by her partner and artistic collaborator, Suzanne Malherbe, a childhood friend and stepsister. They surrounded themselves with members of the Surrealist movement and created work that embraced leftist politics. Cahun, with assistance from Malherbe (under the pseudonym Marcel Moore), produced photographs, assemblages, and publications from the 1920s on. The photograph Entre Nous (Between Us), featuring a pair of masks embedded in sand, gives the title to this show and is emblematic of their multifaceted relationship.

The first retrospective exhibition in the United States of Cahun’s work, Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun brings together over 80 photographs and published material by Cahun and Moore, including several photomontages from their 1930 collaborative publication Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), and the only surviving object by Cahun, which is in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.

Organizer: This exhibition was organized by the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and coproduced with La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona.”

Press release from the Art Institute of Chicago website

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Claude Cahun
Combat de pierres
1931
Gelatin silver print
21 x 15.5 cm
Private collection
© Béatrice Hatala

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Claude Cahun
Le Père
1932
Gelatin silver print
23.6 x 17.7 cm
LAC

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Claude Cahun
Aveux non avenus, planche III
1929 – 1930
Gelatin silver print photomontage
15 x 10 cm
Private collection

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The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60603-6404
T: (312) 443-3600

Opening hours:
Monday – Wednesday, 10.30 – 5.00
Thursday, 10.30 – 8.00
Friday, 10.30 – 8.00
Saturday – Sunday, 10.00 – 5.00
The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.

The Art Institute of Chicago website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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