The Brooklyn Museum: "David Bowie Is"
By Scarlett Davis
I don’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly, but if David Bowie is not a genius, then there is no such thing.”-Mick Rock
After a five-year world tour, the exhibition “David Bowie is” makes its final curtain call in New York at the Brooklyn Museum. Following Bowie’s career and his wishes, the tour began in London at The Victoria and Albert Museum and ends in New York City, the city which he called home having lived there for a longer period of time than anywhere else. Mick Rock, was a photographer of David Bowie’s and a dear friend, whose photographs are featured in the exhibit. Mick said it best when he used the word ‘genius’ to describe Bowie; however, the title offers up a kind of “MadLib” leaving us to fill in the blank for who David Bowie “is” or was, given his passing in 2016 at the age of 69, two days before the release of his final album Blackstar, after a near decade hiatus.
David Bowie was many things to many people: an artist, a painter, an actor, a fashion icon, as well a former trained mime. Somewhat laughable and under -appreciated in The States, the video footage of Bowie miming is absolute pure magic, evinced by the museum traffic, halted, affix the TV screen. Less prominent, David Bowie was also from a working-class family, living in post-war Britain whose greatest early influence was jazz and the great musician, Little Richard. As the exhibition reminds us in bright neon lights as we leave, “David Bowie Is Someone Else.”
The museum provides headphones with near perfect synchronization, so it is cue “Rebel, Rebel” and off you go! It is beyond awesome. As you enter this experience, because that is what “David Bowie Is,” a true experience or a venture into a Bowie Disney Land for ardent fans, as well as new comers. They sell baby Bowie onesies in the gift shop for the coolest kids. It was nice to see people of all ages crowd marching, practically rubbing their faces against the glass cases, like his concerts, just trying to be a part of the Bowie magic.
The brilliance of this exhibition has been expressed is its context. Curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes frame their intent saying Bowie, “channeled the avant-garde into the populist mainstream without compromising its subversive liberating power." For being a public figure of his magnitude, Bowie kept separate his public and private lives. The exhibition offers a unique look into his creative process and influences, as well as a kind of rare scavenger hunt into his personal artifacts. Beyond housing some of his most fabulous costumes like the turquoise suit designed by his most famous costume designer, Kansai Yamamoto, donned only once in his “Life on Mars” music video ––– part of what makes this exhibition unforgettable are the little details. The insights into this man: his coke spoon of 1976, keys to his and Iggy’s Berlin apartment, handwritten lyrics, actual diary entries, and notes on the creation of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, and The Thin White Duke are just a few of Bowie’s created characters and alter-egos. Many people would probably miss the Western Union fax sent to him from his pal Elvis or a doodle signed with love from John Lennon. After collaborating with Lennon on “Fame,” Bowie fondly wrote of the song’s success in a diary entry, utilizing a lightning bolt in lieu of the exclamation to express his joy. The lightning bolt would become an iconic look in his Aladdin Sane album stage.
There is also a Warhol stylized lithographic of his wife of twenty years and widow, supermodel Iman. Bowie was a fan of Warhol and the museum details their somewhat awkward impressions of one another. Of Iman, Bowie was once quoted, "You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is." If you are not overcome by this lachrymose trip into synesthesia, just stop by any one of his displayed music videos, movie footage, or interviews, especially the footage of “Space Oddity.” The general feeling is a colossal nostalgic head banging session, at the right base drops of course, followed by the low after the high and the sinking realization: What a tragedy to lose this spiky, orange haired man, music is now dead.
After your mind has now floated “in the most peculiar way,” you can continue to revel in the artistry of Bowie’s near fifty-year career with over 150 singles and 27 albums and stop by the only part of the exhibit that doesn’t warrant headphones, the live concert streamed with old performance footage, which is situated right after a section showcasing his SNL sketch and his time on Broadway in the Elephant Man. Amazingly but not surprising, David opted out of using prosthetics and used his own body to mirror the Elephant Man’s real-life deformities.
You could easily spend days in the museum gleaning new Bowie acumen, like the collection of art he did in collaboration with Laurie Anderson where he actually drew/painted images of lyrics. Extraordinary, what a mind. It was common knowledge that David Bowie was a voracious reader. My favorite artifact was a steamer trunk of his personal books; he had a collection of a near 400 with works by James Baldwin, A Clockwork Orange, The Gnostic Gospels, or one of his favorites The Sailor Who Fell from Grace.
Bowie helped to do more than set trends, he helped to transcend the world in their thoughts towards race, sexuality, and individuality. He was constantly breaking the rules in music, which corresponded to his approach to everything, which continues to inspire people today. In his androgyny, he blurred the lines between boy and girl and helped to liberate not only an entire generation, but a convention for doing and seeing everything the same way. His song “Boys Keep Swinging” was revolutionary. Bowie with his one blue eye and one grey, might have truly been his Sci-fi cult character from The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the world will never have the pleasure of knowing one of his wonderful kind again. "The David Bowie Is" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from March 2nd, 2018 through July 15th, 2018. If you are like me, going once is not enough.