Bowie’s Changes – the Many Lives of a Rock Artist: David Bowie IS, the Brooklyn Museum

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When it comes to identity-definition, there are two kinds of artists.

The first kind develops his craft and his idiom as far as they can go, and then, once sensing that the craft and idiom have within themselves some kind of success-potential for communication of ideas and sentiments, settles upon them. The artist decides to perfect his selected approach - and perform it and publish it - again and again and again. And it works well. Audiences who dig it do dig it and don’t ask questions.

The second kind possesses and revels in his craft and his idiom as parts of himself, and then, once sensing their abilities and limitations in terms of potential for artistic achievement, rejects them. The artist decides that he will reinvent the selected craft - and dress it in different fabrics and colors and styles - again and again and again. And it works well. Audiences who dig it do dig it, mostly, and ask an ongoing plethora of ever-changing questions as they bear witness to the eternal evolution of the artist’s craft.

David Bowie is of the second kind. And the Brooklyn Museum, in its presentation of the stellar fifty-year-career-spanning exhibit (born at London’s V&A five years ago), seeks to remind us of this truth.

Upon arrival to the exhibition, visitors are given headphones via which to hear selected songs, interviews, and related sound bites as they traverse through the space. This way, to a point, the curators (Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh) possess control of the museum-goers’ visual, and aural, experiences. Here, it works to create a full-immersion stint, rendering attendees Bowie-fied in totality.

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Broackes, Marsh, and their teams took care too, with cooperation of and access to Bowie’s extensive archives, to cover or at least touch upon every facet of the artist’s personal life, upbringing, cultural and musical influences, and creative decisions that made him who he was.  The superficial elements of Bowie’s becoming – which would accompany any teenage artist’s journey at the early stages – are addressed early on in the exhibit. Bowie sought after beat poetry, avant-garde jazz too – some of it just because he knew that it would be beneficial as an artist - and unique - to like. Eric Dolphy, especially: "I was convinced I was an Eric Dolphy fan. So I would listen to the damn things (records) until I became an Eric Dolphy fan."

Along a visitor’s journey through David Bowie Is, s/he becomes a voyeur into Bowie’s whole life, viewing piece after piece after piece (there are many, many pieces of the artist’s life here). By the end of the trip, the viewer has presumably gotten closer to David Bowie - the artist and man.

A high percentage of David Bowie is is devoted to the fashion legacy of Bowie the performer; more than sixty pieces can be seen throughout the exhibition. There are Freddie Burretti’s bodysuits from the Ziggy Stardust (1972) era, Kansai Yamamoto’s designs from the Aladdin Sane tour (1973), and Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack coat from Bowie’s 1997 EART HLING album cover. There are also gaze-worthy set designs from 1974’s Diamond Dogs tour. Video clips are artfully strewn throughout the museum-goer’s footpath: excellent bits that showcase Bowie’s acting talent and powerful on-screen persona in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), as well as television appearances like Bowie’s 1979 SNL performance. Properly represented too, are the rock and fashion photographers who were responsible for contributing some of the most iconic images of David Bowie throughout his career: Mick Rock, Helmut Newton, John Rowlands, and Herb Ritts.

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What David Bowie is does best is draw crystal-clear parallels between Bowie’s past, his youth and influences, and the artist(s) he became – and continued to become again and again. The first section of the exhibition helps instruct us as to how Bowie’s childhood may have been, how his experience as a youth in post-war England may have been. Heavily influenced by the exciting and ever-changing culture around him, Bowie the artist and student went through a mod period, a mime-performance period, a folk-singer period, and an R&B vocalist period. Showcased in this section of the exhibition are David Bowie’s own records (Little Richard LP is featured), and related artefacts from his stints in local 60s bands, the Kon-rads and King Bees.

An early major moment in DB’s success story: “Space Oddity” was released in summer of ’69, perfectly timed alongside the USA’s moon landing in July. Bowie’s single became a hit, reaching number one on the UK charts and number fifteen on the US Billboard’s Hot 100. The ardent emotional direction that Bowie followed in his song as Major Tom, struck a chord of true yearning – a calling out, a “can you hear me?” to the nether regions of outer space, and the nether regions of the world-home of earth. A desire to communicate, to be understood. This need came at a time when the hippie counterculture was seeking to hold onto any kind of philosophical or societal permanence available.

Over the course of his decades-long career, Bowie would draw upon the motifs of the alien, the extraterrestrial, the outsider, descending upon an unsuspecting group of regulars in desperate need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The rock star has long been seen as a potential stand-in for a come-again Christ figure, a martyr who sacrifices himself onstage nightly for an audience’s entertainment. Bowie’s fascination with and cultivation of the extraterrestrial archetype, intensified his potential for relatability amongst his audience of wanderers, world-hungry explorers, and lost teens. A mainstream society-endorsed cookie cutter performer would fail to stimulate the youth of the 1970s; a pronounced other-of-others – a Bowie – would do nothing but. And he did.

David Bowie looked to the future always, which taken to its logistical end point led frequently into the geography of outer space. In concerns of time, the future is unknown; in concerns of space, uncharted territory is unknown. Thus, the alien is a fitting figure to symbolize the vast floorplans of the future.        

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Bowie felt that pop music needed an overhaul, and he sought to bring it about himself, with his own art. He morphed the vocation into a serious undertaking, an enterprise that would hold great weight amidst the cultural corners of the universe. He did this by injecting vast intelligence into his far-reaching work of the 1970s.

“You are not alone,” Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust insisted during the song “Rock n’ Roll Suicide.” Like his close comrade Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, or like Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie sensed that the cultural tide of the 1970s needed to feel that it belonged to something greater than itself. The seeming failure of the 1960s countercultural movement, had left many of its participants feeling down in the dumps – depressed that corporate America had yet won out. The love war cry of “You are not alone” insisted against this morose mania. Utmost strength, articulated amidst a mass of individuals. The 1970s needed this; they needed Bruce Springsteen and his creed, and they needed David Bowie and his.


One section of the exhibition addresses Bowie’s influences from the history of theatre and drama, such as kabuki, avant-garde theater, and German expressionism. Other sections feature video clips from Bowie’s music videos “DJ” (1979) and “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (1995), as well as 1973’s Top of the Pops performance (“Jean Genie”).  Another section features props from films Basquiat (1996) and Labyrinth (1986) – like Bowie’s “The Goblin King”’s scepter.

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In the music video of 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” featured prominently in the exhibition, Bowie depicts himself as the “pierrot,” the nineteenth century clown. Music, as a form he felt, should be left to its own devices, and not forced through cerebral analysis. It spoke for itself. Music was a clown to him; he had received extensive training as a mime after all. In a 1970 German documentary on the Steve Miller Band, Steve stresses how above all else, he is an entertainer. With all of its potentialities and limitations. He is not a politician or a philosopher – merely an entertainer. Therefore the extent of his societal reach should keep this in mind. David Bowie’s philosophy it seems aligns with this way of thinking too. He did not wish to take himself, his work, or his craft overly seriously. He wished to bring an element of the pierrot into everything he did.