Thoughts & Reflections on “David Bowie Is” at the Brooklyn Museum

Last Tuesday night I had the good fortune to experience the much hyped “David Bowie is” at the Brooklyn Museum (March 2 through July 15), as part of a Sotheby’s Preferred event. The museum and exhibition was opened just for our small group saving me from having to fight the crowds at this record breaking popular show! If you are thinking of visiting here are a few of my thoughts.First, be aware that you will have to take pictures with your mind or buy the exhibition book since there is no photography allowed.

Secondly, I will preface this by saying that, like many of my generation, I grew up with Bowie’s music as a soundtrack to my formative years — particular songs spark memories related to world events, for example, the moon landing, but also those happening in my own personal hemisphere. I’m by no means Bowie’s most ardent fan, yet he was always on my horizon, distinguishing himself in real time by which album/song or stage character/persona/alter ego he had taken on – from Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Man who Fell to Earth, The Thin White Duke with stops along the way as Major Tom, Pierrot the Clown, the half man-half dog Diamond Dogs caricature or as a cabaret performer in a giant plastic marionette costume necessitating his being carried onto the SNL stage as The Man who Sold the World. All of these costumes as well as several from his varied theatrical and movie career roles are represented in this exhibition.

“David Bowie Is” had its conception and birth while Bowie was still alive (hence the present tense). It opened in March 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with no other museums expressing interest at first. The exhibition takes a deep dive into Bowie’s five decade long career as a songwriting master of just about every musical genre, performer, actor, costume and set designer, screenwriter, artist, you-name-it-he-did-it, often while under the influence — perhaps you’ve heard that his coke spoon (at his nadir while living in L.A. he was fueled by little more than cocaine, milk and peppers) takes pride of place here. All that being said, I would have enjoyed a more chronological organization of the overabundance of articles here (and a whittling down) perhaps grouped by albums/films/appearances. To me it feels a little jumbled and distracting albeit spacious with a rambling connection of multiple rooms containing too many diverse often unnecessary items from his vast archives; many with a seemingly tangential influence on Bowie’s life. I believe it would have more impact if edited a bit more.

The beginning starts out strong with Bowie’s childhood outside London, his early bands, his name change from Davey Jones to David Bowie as he didn’t want confusion between himself and the Monkees frontman. The moon landing and subsequent iconic 1968 photo “Earthrise” published on Time Magazine’s cover gave Bowie the idea for “Space Oddity” (already a take-off on Kubrick’s Space Odyssey) and a little fun with the lyrics “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” As I entered the next room it started to get a little confusing — as I mentioned the lack of chronological order had me struggling to place things in context.

“Curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh from the Department of Theatre and Performance at the V&A, David Bowie is explores the creative process of an artist whose sustained reinventions, innovative collaborations, and bold characterizations revolutionized the way we see music, inspired people to shape their own identities while also challenging social traditions,” reads the press release. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Matthew Yokobosky, Director of Exhibition Design. Spotify is a lead sponsor.

Perhaps the hard core fans and multitaskers are better able to read, listen, and absorb the myriad of information coming at them from photos, videos, set designs, album artwork and “never-before-shown storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, revealing the evolution of his creative ideas” – both visually and from the Sennheiser audio pack provided.

The headphones track your place in the exhibition allowing you to go at your own speed. Unfortunately, the multi-sensory sensation drove me to distraction — I found it difficult to process both the double stimuli (Bowie’s voice telling a story) while reading and viewing what was in front of me. What’s more, if you visit the exhibition with someone else you will be alienated from communicating with them by the headphones and unable to share the experience. I felt that the overwhelming amount of extraneous items coupled with a fear of missing something important hidden amongst the lot tended to dull the joy/experience of the music. I enjoyed the simple straightforward items such as Bowie’s large antique looking house keys from his residence in Berlin where he escaped to try to detox from his hedonistic, unhealthy lifestyle in L.A.

I recommend going early in the day since you’ll need your strength to make the journey – not only to the Eastern Parkway museum — once you’re inside on the 5th floor it’s still a long trek to the exhibition space. Allow about one and a half to two hours to fully absorb the show; maybe more if you want to linger in the concert room (remember to take off your headphones). Unfortunately this was the room that housed a number of costumes from the total of 60 on display; many from Bowie’s later years, in almost complete darkness which I found extremely frustrating.

Many of his earlier and more famous duds from Kansai Yamamoto (the most celebrated black striped patent leather wide legged Tokyo Pop jumpsuit begins the exhibition), the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits and two-piece quilted suit designed by Freddie Burretti that he wore for an early television appearance on Top of the Pops, as well as the Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat for the Earthling album cover, are nicely showcased. If the ice blue suit jacket’s looks nipped in, that’s because it is – a tailors card shows he had a 26.5 inch waist with some earlier articles only measuring 23 inches!

Other costumes such as the one-shouldered, one-legged knit Yamamoto, the Burretti lightning bolt jumpsuit, and the Yamamoto cape with Japanese lettering are placed way up on high platforms. The Pierrot clown costume worn in Ashes to Ashes is so much more embellished and intricate than meets the eye in the grainy video – it’s even got little dripping crystals! The open weave crocheted Ziggy Stardust costume with sculptural gold hands placed over the shoulder and breast (one additional hand intended for over the crotch was removed due to TV sensors and subsequently lost or stolen) is in a glass case with a several other costume notables.

It’s almost as interesting to see what was included in the exhibition as to wonder about what was left out. There is nothing of Bowie’s personal life — neither of his wives (Angie or Iman) are even referenced here. No mention of Mick Jagger although Iggy Pop, Warhol, Klaus Nomi, Lindsay Kemp (muse and reportedly lover) are featured and of course, his biggest early musical influence, Little Richard whose photo he carried around from recording studio to recording studio as inspiration. Bowie’s forays into Dadaism, Brecht, and performance styles such as Mime and Kabuki are all chronicled here. In short, this is an intellectual’s paradise; a scholarly academic thesis of the icon, in my opinion, teetering on the edge of pretentiousness; not a tabloid-y People Magazine David Bowie Is (for Dummies). Being the shallow creature I am, I yearned for the latter.

The fact is indisputable: although Bowie’s chart topping pop songs were often deceptively simple, behind those two different colored eyes (due to a youthful punch to the eye over a girl) lurked the mind of an intellectual. His traveling stage wardrobe case which accompanied him on tour contained at least 100 of his favorite books.

The traveling exhibition actually followed the trajectory of Bowie’s life beginning in England and ending in New York where he resided the longest. The final stop of the exhibition in Brooklyn has additional New York-centric items including those having to do with the recording of his last two albums here: The Next Day and Blackstar, the album which was released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death. I watched a YouTube 2013 video clip from Australian TV in which the panel discussed Bowie’s 2004 heart attack as a factor in Bowie’s focus on his own mortality throughout The Next Day, an album released to the total surprise of his fans to coincide with the opening of the V&A exhibition. The question was how do you secretly record an album in NYC? “We were anticipating his death but instead got the album. Thank goodness we got the album rather than the obituary,” said the host. Interestingly, as Bowie was a control freak who was integrally involved in every aspect of his professional life, he is said to have given the V&A carte blanche to use any of the preserved items from his archives, as they saw fit. It is unclear if Bowie ever experienced the exhibition firsthand as he would have worn a disguise — to my knowledge no one ever mentioned a sighting.

The very last room after the gift shop where I purchased the accompanying exhibition book ($45) features fan art – Bowie reportedly always kept such gifts, remarking that it was not up to him to decide on the artistic merits of the work. Some of them are actually quite good so make sure you pass through the gift shop to see them.

When I finally left the exhibition to attend a cocktail reception at the museum restaurant The Norm, I vowed to return another day with fresh eyes. I plan to visit with my Bowie fan daughter. It saddens me to think that, like album liner notes, handwritten song lyrics are something that will most likely go the way of the dinosaur. These, and other mementos, deserve be seen by the next generation before becoming extinct.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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