Somewhere near the top of the bland ceramic womb of Hong Kong’s Pacific Place mall there is a Sotheby’s, or at least a showroom belonging to the international art and antique peddlers. I am guided to the correct elevator by a smiling woman holding a picture of David Bowie with a finger to his lips. Mixed messages. I have swapped the Hunky Dory tranquillity of home for the Tin Machine tinnitus of the city specifically to see the art collection of one of my heroes which, somewhat depressingly, is being flown around the world over the next few weeks, presumably to see which economic hub is capable of birthing an oligarch with the beans to bid hard and fast when the 350 pieces are sold in three thematic job lots in London next month.
Sealed into my metal box I sigh in sympathy with the lift doors, and also in recollection at a certain dream I had before coming to Hong Kong. An avid Antiques Roadshow fan, I remember explaining to my ex-wife how I was seriously considering entering the antiques trade on arrival, sight unseen, in our new home. Before she started laughing, I sketched out a near-future scenario in which I would become a cross between Indiana Jones and Lovejoy. When she saw I was being serious, a mental note was made in the deficit column and accountancy courses were suggested.
We all suspect Bowie was well hung, but was he well lit? Not in this case. The twenty or so selections from his art collection are banged under uniformly bright lighting, allowing viewers to interact with the more brooding, abstract work by casting dirty great shadows onto murky canvases. Sure, no one wants to trip over a Picasso or mistake a Damien Hirst spin painting for a genuine work of art, but there seems little call for this treatment at what should be an intimate preview/last chance to see.
Although a Wyndham Lewis sketch could – at a stretch – be a nascent Starman or Bowie-as-mime, it’s too small to create much of an impact.
Bar the bold Basquiat and some neon sculpture straight out of Homer Simpson’s day job, the exhibits are more reflective than might have been expected. Family is a key theme, and eponymous in Henry Moore’s undersized, overpriced sculpture.
The purpose of coming today was to see things Bowie looked at and wanted. It’s tempting to wonder if Moore’s piece was chosen for its simple depiction of a straightforward nuclear family, something that eluded Bowie in his youth, due in part to his brother’s mental illness – a state of affairs he would write about so hypnotically in The Bewlay Brothers.
Bowie’s purchase of unfashionable British artists from the last century has been gleefully seized upon in at least one review as a mark of his repressed conservatism, but I wonder if the melancholy hues of these dusty-seeming objects and canvases represented a confusion related to his past that he needed to identify, and hang.
These lines in Dollar Days, a song on Bowie’s final record, entered my ears as I studied the pieces: ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see’. Superficially, these words support the defiant approach to death that permeates much of Blackstar, but an alternative reading is that so fixed within his mind was the idea of Englishness – the gentle countryside, the surreal humour – that he need not see his homeland in the flesh again: it existed within him, as it exists within some of the pieces on display here.
Trying not to dwell on the inevitable feeling of loneliness and loss tucked between the artworks, I concentrate on some of Bowie’s more contemporary acquisitions: the giant telephone, bright red cube radio and beige record player (all estimated to fetch £200-£600, if you’re interested), above which is listed his 25 albums that could ‘Change Your Reputation’. Tongue in cheek, finger to his lips, whatever your verdict on his art collection it’s clear who’s having the last laugh here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hint or two of what was going on behind the scenes in the eternal expat’s living museum in New York.