A ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SUICIDE
LIVE PERFORMANCE. 2 HOURS (1998)
Over two sold-out nights in July 1998, the ICA in London presented Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard’s most ambitious re-enactment project. Twenty-five years to the day since David Bowie’s infamous ‘farewell’ performance as Ziggy Stardust, the artists recreated the entire show, in microscopic detail.
Having pioneered the use of re-enactment in contemporary art, A Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide was to be the culmination of Forsyth & Pollard’s exploration of artifice as a catalyst for an authentic present moment. By pushing up against one of the most significant building blocks of our shared culture this work examines ideas of collective ownership. That night in 1973, like a favourite pop song, is in effect a whole series of individual experiences, felt in different ways by different people. Yet – somehow – we sense a shared ownership.
Memory manipulates even the most formative moments of our lives. We’re bound up, implicated. These performances articulate how we embed ourselves into these objects of contemplation. Our relationship to that original moment is slippery, moving backwards and forwards. And each time our mind recalls an event it’s rewritten – our memory creating our own unique story.
In resurrecting Ziggy Stardust for this brief moment, it wasn’t David Bowie’s character they reanimated. Rather, they brought life to their own, authentic, Ziggy Stardust. A creation simultaneously authentic and inauthentic. The past mapped onto the present. A series of tiny, personal re-enactments. Each person in the audience using the performance to reanimate their own Ziggy Stardust in their own mind. Forsyth & Pollard’s interest lies not in that past historic moment, but in how the spirit of those moments persist in time and space, both real and imagined.
A Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide was in preparation for 18 months. The artists conducted weeks of auditions, ultimately casting Steve Harvey in the role of Ziggy. From there, a band was pieced together, including Young Jazz Musician of the Year Tom Cawley.
Piecing together the original event, the artists utilised multiple sources. The D.A. Pennebaker documentary, bootleg recordings that filled gaps in the original film and a number of (contradictory) interviews with original audience members. Rehearsals then began on perfecting a move-for-move replica of the original performance.
The seven elaborate costumes that feature in the original show were recreated for this project by Natasha Korniloff. She’d met Bowie in Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe, and would go on to design stage costumes for him later in his career. Everyone attending the ICA performance was given a free programme. In her introduction, Vivienne Gaskin, Director of Live Art at the ICA, wrote: “The legacy of Ziggy, as many contributors in this programme discuss, lies most explicitly in sexual politics, expressive freedoms and theatrical possibilities. Contributions from the fields of music, fashion and design cite the creation of Ziggy among the boldest and most intricate of artistic statements… Ziggy bore himself, defined himself, faked himself and killed himself in a surge of creative excess. Nothing related to a reality anyone knew, yet generations then and now bought in unconditionally to a way of life that can only be played out in full on stage.”
The recently created ICA New Media Centre enabled the performance to be broadcast live on the internet. This was the ICA’s first-ever live webcast, and was accessed by over 3,000 remote viewers. Following A Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide, the artists would only return to ideas around re-enactment once more. In 2003, their only film recreation, File under Sacred Music, was again staged at the ICA.