Monday, December 30, 2013

Bowie, Cronenberg and Clay Animals

A legendary musician, a venerated movie director and little ceramic figurines. All are featured in recent exhibits in Toronto that explore storytelling from different angles.

Having its North American debut in Toronto, the David Bowie exhibition was one of the most exciting exhibits ever to come out of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A retrospective of David Bowie’s life and career featuring more than 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive -- including more than 50 stage costumes, a variety of props (even the scepter from Labyrinth!), personal notes and rare videos -- was displayed at the AGO until the end of November. The exhibit is “an immersive multimedia show” that explores Bowie’s work, influence and collaborations in the fields of fashion, sound, theatre, art and film. Its next stop is São Paulo, Brazil.

via Torontoist
Of all his rock stars contemporaries, Bowie was probably the one who used storytelling techniques to the greatest effect throughout his career. He used music and video to knit storylines and characters into a larger narrative over 26 studio albums and almost 50 years. The characters he created – Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Sold the World, etc. – have become icons in popular culture. By his own admission, if Bowie weren’t a rock star, he would be a writer – and probably a rock star at that too.

via Torontoist
The exhibition is broken down into mini-exhibits with creative displays that mix music, light effects and video collages. What surprised me most among the abundant trivia (who knew he took his name from frontiersman and Alamo hero Jim Bowie!) is that I had forgotten what a prolific actor he also is: he has acted in over 20 films, on TV and on Broadway, and has done everything from miming to musical theater. We also get a closer look into his many collaborations, from William Burroughs and Klaus Nomi to Warhol and the Pet Shop Boys (alongside many other musicians, fashion designers, directors, photographers, etc.).

Bowie has always been a transgressive artist and the exhibit explores how he blurred the lines of gender, art, music and performance, creating a one-man revolution that transformed pop culture forever and made him an icon. Whether he is changing the world or hawking a purse, David Bowie still is.

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There’s no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” (Bowie)

Another man who has blurred boundaries and told us incredible stories – the man who brought us heads exploding, a man turning into a flyViggo Mortensen fighting naked in a sauna and all kinds of penis- and vagina-shaped parasites and devices – is showing his wares at the Tiff Lightbox until early next year. One of the most versatile storytellers of our times, David Cronenberg has been called perverse, disgusting and repulsive, and is also one of the most acclaimed, provocative and influential contemporary Canadian directors.

via The Star
The exhibition, appropriately titled Evolution, traces not only the 70-year-old Toronto-born director’s filmographic evolution (from porn-y B-movies with plenty of blood and viscera to more cerebral and serious latter fare), but also the trajectory of a filmmaker always searching for new ways to explore his interests in science fiction, psychology, literature, biotechnology, sex and the dark side of human nature.

His tales took a different turn in 1991, with his adaptation of the “unfilmable” William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. Like David Bowie, Cronenberg also looked for inspiration in Burroughs and Beat literature. Cronenberg gave life to mugwumps, the Interzone, typewriter beetles with talking anuses and some other scary and dystopic scenarios. He then evolved a new layer in his directorial work with more psychological material, starting with 2002’s Spider, a scary story with no talking orifices or flat out gross-outs, all the way to 2012’s Cosmopolis, where he -- accidentally or not -- captured the zeitgeist of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from inside a limousine, no less.

David Cronenberg has also self-admittedly always thought of being a novelist. He has been telling stories for the past 40 years, sometimes his own, sometimes someone else’s, and -- also like Bowie -- he is a transgressive artist, bringing plenty of controversial and subversive sensibilities to the material he touches. His black humor, gender exploration and dark sexual fantasies are always present, from fetishistic car-crash seekers to the birth of the dangerous methods of psychoanalysis, from video game sockets that connect straight to your rear end to creatures that excrete addictive drugs from tubes in their heads.

I ended my exhibit circuit at the Gardiner Museum, an often-overlooked gem located in Toronto across the street from the flashier and more recognized ROM.

The Gardiner is Canada’s national ceramics museum, with a collection consisting of more than 3,000 pieces. The current exhibit, Animal Stories, explores our fascination with animals and how their narratives have been illustrated in the often-forgotten medium of ceramics.

(more pics on Tumblr)

In this exhibit there are pictures of exotic creatures, household pets, mythical beasts and a few endangered species, representing “our encounters with the animal world, shedding light on how our social, symbolic, affectionate, scientific and utilitarian relationships” with them.

We are also introduced to many creatures with characters like Peter Rabbit, Clara the rhinoceros, and Jumbo the elephant (who, surprisingly, died in St. Thomas, Ontario, where there’s a memorial and statue of the departed celebrity elephant.) The exhibition also features illustrated books alongside ceramics, “exploring the longstanding connection between the two media as vehicles for storytelling.” The work of Toronto-based author and illustrator Barbara Reid stood out, with her use of plasticine to actually sculpt her illustrations.

All in all a curious, charming and interesting exhibit for children and adults, that resonated with the words of Charles Darwin:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”


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