Show Hide image

A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched.

Art, David Bowie once told the New York Times, “has always been for me a stable nourishment”. You don’t think of stability with the Thin White Duke, locked in a room in Los Angeles or Berlin, the blinds pulled down, living off cocaine and frightening himself half to death with forays into black magic. All the same, art permeated everything he ever did, a source of succour and reliable inspiration, one of the few constants in his restless, roving life.

The only O-level he got was art, and like many glam rockers and proto-punks he did the obligatory stint at art school, too. Bowie didn’t stick around, though, abandoning Croydon College in the early 1960s in favour of making dogged stabs at rock stardom. When this didn’t seem to work he backed away from music, spending a couple of years studying and performing with the visionary mime artist Lindsay Kemp. It was Kemp who introduced him to some of his most lasting influences, including kabuki theatre, and who helped him develop a captivatingly visual, physical dimension to his songs, bringing high art to bear on the disposable medium of pop.

In September 1971, just before the release of Hunky Dory, he went to New York to visit another hero: Andy Warhol, the consummate magician of the 20th century. Among the things Bowie got from Warhol were his permissive, prodigal mixing of high and low culture and his thrifty willingness to snatch inspiration from anywhere.

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

Always exceptionally courageous in his reinventions, he made this aspect of his life public in 1994 when he first exhibited his expressionistic, interestingly static and melancholy paintings at the Flowers East gallery in London for War Child, the charity backed by his friend and collaborator Brian Eno. By this time he was already part of the art establishment. He was on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters, where at an early meeting he had shyly suggested that he might interview the painter Balthus, then a neighbour in Switzerland. This was followed by serious, knowledgeable interviews with other contemporary artists, among them Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel.

Bowie was an inveterate collaborator; among the many works he created with other artists is a painting made with Hirst. (“He encouraged me to dress up like a Martian, stand on a ladder and throw paint at a spinning canvas. I had a ball. I felt like I was three years old again.”) In 1997 he co-founded 21, a publisher of art books. Among its first ventures was Nat Tate by William Boyd, a hoax biography of an imaginary painter that suckered much of the art world in a typically playful piece of Bowie subterfuge.

In 1996 he played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat. Much is made of Bowie’s inability to act, but there is something almost eerie about how well he embodies Andy, with his spacy intonation and awkward grace. It’s a loving homage, circling back to his own youthful ambitions.

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched. One of his last great songs was “Where Are We Now?”, a plaintive, heartbreakingly spare hymn to ageing, to abiding loss and abiding love. The video, directed by Tony Oursler, is set in an artist’s studio, that site of rigorous and messy transformation, Bowie’s psychic home throughout the years. “As long as there’s me,” he sings, his face lined and sorrowful. “As long as there’s you.”

Well, there is no him now; only the ­record of those impossible, breathtaking, seemingly endless transformations. Ch-ch-ch-changes, as he once sang: the absolute essence of art.

Olivia Laing’s new book, “The Lonely City”, will be published in March by Canongate

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

Show Hide image

I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game