Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?1
As a David Bowie fan, I've always swooned at his 1971 song, Life on Mars?, with its spinning portrait of human dysfunction, spectacle, and beauty in one human heap. The song describes a montage of sailors, lawmen, Mickey Mouse, Britannia, and Lennon. The fads and failures of politics and society are watched by a "girl with mousy hair" deep in a movie theater. When the song was first released on his album, Honky Dory (1971), Bowie described it as "a sensitive young girl's reaction to the media," and later added in 1997, " think she finds herself disappointed with reality … that although she's living in the doldrums of reality, she's being told that there's a far greater life somewhere, and she's bitterly disappointed that she doesn't have access to it."2
For this feature, I've brought together four artists whose work combine different perspectives on Bowie's Life on Mars?, looking at the song's 1970s critique of society and media, science-fiction, and our own human-alien qualities. Artist Margaret Meehan looks at the oddity of our own culture, layering histories and "histrionics" with nearly science-fiction results. George Quartz shows the idiosyncrasies and evolution of media in his creation of After Hours, a mock late-night TV show from the 1980s. Aaron Storck's work journeys into the magical and illogical world of mass-media in his creation of a DIY wizard prophet. While Margaux Williamson experiments with the ambiguous line between real life and acting, painting and filming portraits of humans in the midst of arrested development.
The best science fiction stories in fact begin with specific truths about human society and history. This couldn't be more true than in Margaret Meehan's Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm, a project that layers fiction with facts on our own cultural history with race, gender, and media spectatorship. Combining images of 19th century cabinet cards and the creation of a Circassian female boxer, Meehan examines the Victorian era fascination with human spectacle in the world of P.T. Barnum's curiosity museums, the world fairs, and the rise of freak shows. In The Pugilist, Meehan creates a freak-hybrid in the form of a white bearded female boxer. Using the same gimmicks of alienation brought to other races, Meehan brings "strangeness to whiteness" as a way of highlighting the oddness and brutality of our own cultural human history.3 In many ways, the complexities of race, gender, and media in our society of only a hundred years ago already feel alien to us. Meehan's imagery appears as though from a different planet, but its rules and social psychology are entirely homemade.
There's an amazing collision of spectacle and dysfunction in Bowie's song that epitomizes how media builds celebrity and entertainment. In After Hours, George Quartz created a fake cable access late-night TV show with all the 80s trimmings including the smooth sounds of the 'After Hours' band. Dressed in a ruffle shirt and black bow tie Quartz selected volunteers from the crowd and interviewed them as "celebrity" guest personalities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Yoko Ono, or Clint Eastwood. In each segment, unsuspecting guests play along in their celebrity interview creating an uncanny blend of improvisation and awkwardness - an homage to the 80s. The magic of the show is its ability to capture the evolution of television's aesthetic, music, and repetitive engine for creating a celebrity.
The question of life on Mars in many ways is a yearning for another society, a more intelligent life form somewhere in the universe that "gets it." It also describes the excitement, potential, and deep unknown of the universe. Aaron Storck's work delves into the unfiltered compost heap of magical thinking and the information age through the creation of a wizard persona. In his 2012 video, Woods in New Jersey, The Struggling Peace Poet, his character recites an illogical freestyle poem layering imagery of decomposing flowers with sexual positions, mulch, and cars into a winding poem that is both hilarious and oddly moving. In his painting titled, Altar to Magical Thinking and Garbage Realities on Imaginary Slag Heap, abandoned religious and pop-culture paraphernalia are discarded with paper towels, soda cans, and a candelabra as a testament to our desire for progress and new golden calfs. Yet there is also something genuinely exciting and optimistic about his work and its hopes for humanity. In New Ministries, Storck's wizard persona spells out what's needed from humans of the new century as he munches chips and drinks Mountain Dew. "Its going to be great!" he proclaims, "t's going to be hard but it's going to be great!" Weaving between a infomercial pep-talk and religious mass, Storck's work seesaws between asinine ravings and genuine poetry with hilarious and other-worldly results.
Margaux Williamson's work explores the same essential melancholy of Bowie's song and heroine with a "sunken dream" in Life on Mars? In her film, Teenager Hamlet, Williamson cast people to play "Hamlets" and "Ophelias" from a singles event on a party boat in Toronto. The film unfolds into a series of conversations with each of the Hamlets and Ophelias on their inner feelings, family relationships, acting versus reality, as well as the feeling of powerlessness on making a difference in the world. Williamson also works in painting; her pieces are often uncomfortable portraits of people awkwardly sitting in bars, alone in a hot tub, or on a deserted street. In Untitled, Williamson depicts a woman in red underwear being assisted by a policeman in a kind of strange melting night scene. A drunken aftermath that describes the isolation, humor, and sliding reality of the human condition.
Bowie's dance hall brawl and montage of human dysfunction shows humans in all our complexity and confusion. In fact, we are living on Mars. In so many ways, our own society and existence operates on fascinating levels of absurdity, reality, and complexity- we are the aliens. Take any common bar on any night in New York City and watch. The beauty of Life on Mars? and the artwork above is its heightened experience of both watching human oddity from afar as well as existing in that alien state of being human.