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The Theocracy of David Bowie

Theo Macdonald is an artist that publishes a regular comic series called Theocracy – an excruciatingly simple pun on the artist’s name. The autobiographical and mock-scholar tone of Theocracy suits, as with each new release, Macdonald outlines another adventure of embodied cultural critique. The latest issue titled Go Out – Stay In – Get Things Done, outlines the artist’s fourteen-week conversion to David Bowie circa 1983 (one of the musicians most maligned periods). As Macdonald explains on page one:

“The project is thinking about how certain parts of an artist’s career are canonised and the transitional phases glossed over.”

The comic format is a surprisingly intuitive guide to the conceptual performance piece. The necessary context of the work is made illustrative, and each intricacy repurposed as a twist in the story. A map of Macdonald’s experience during the performance; the comic is a personal record of what might otherwise seem a deceitful exercise.

While Go Out – Stay In – Get Things Done feels like the definitive guide to the performance, Macdonald’s shape shifting found a number of sporadic expressions: durational performance, video, painting, comic literature, and even a Let’s Dance listening party. The culmination is a strange and unwieldy research project, possessed of humor and intelligence. It’s a simple conceptual hook, perhaps even a one liner: I am David Bowie.

Though in truth, Macdonald never professes to be David Bowie. Instead, this is a facsimile deeply aware of its own poor artifice. Macdonald never could find the right canary yellow suit, and his tie was a sloppy imitation. Though the cut of the suit seemed right… big and boxy, ill fitting in the correct manner. Macdonald’s Bowie was a distinctly ‘retro’ figure that by his own admission made him feel like “yuppie scum”. Dignity on the line, Macdonald pursued a research method grounded in many of the same perplexed stares that Bowie himself must have endured.

The comic’s commentary describes Let’s Dance as Bowie without persona, a moment of “just Bowie”. In selecting this glimpse of bare-Bowiedom, Macdonald avoids the myriad of dissociated Bowies that offer a costumed transformation. There is Pierrot Bowie, Ziggy Stardust Bowie, and of-course Aladdin Sane Bowie; so many Bowie’s that the Internet had to provide a series of charts and infographics. With all these distinct and highly costumed incarnations, why choose the comparatively banal Let’s Dance? What does the plain-suited figure of 1983 have to offer?

The answer comes by way of Macdonald’s own story, including a surprisingly tender anecdote about a jukebox on a school ferry. This series of personal admissions instill a quiet conviction to Macdonald’s performance. The choice of Let’s Dance wasn’t arbitrary; it was grounded in years of fascination that eventually led to this gesture. There seems to be sincerity to Macdonald’s lived mimicry, an attempt to experience – perhaps even empathise – with the moment Bowie revealed himself after the fabled Berlin years.

While the project is nominally about David Bowie, it is Macdonald’s own biography that intrigues and surprises. The hybrid of internal monologue, scholarly research, and costumed mimicry, represents an embodied approach to learning that seeks to implicate the body into a form of cultural criticism. Macdonald’s approach reminds me of another iconic figure of the 1980s, David Byrne, who once remarked of the possibility of “mixing ironic humour with sincerity in performance”, and creating a space where seemingly opposite entities can co-exist.

Emil Dryburgh

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