The David Bowie Is Exhibition – a collection of costumes, artifacts, sounds and visions – has been touring the world’s great museums for the past five years, visiting twelve venues in all and welcoming over two million visitors total. It closed forever on July 15, but right before the end I made my pilgrimage to see it at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City on July 8.
The exhibit, culled from over 75,000 items in David Bowie’s personal archive, gave visitors a peek into every corner of Bowie’s life, career, and creative process in surprising detail. While the show was arranged in thematic groupings, there was a chronological element to it as well, and pieces ranged from paraphernalia from his childhood and schooling to the leather-bound book used in his final two music videos in 2016. In between, we find countless handwritten lyric sheets, costumes and props from concert, television and video appearances throughout his career, sketches for stage designs, video interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, instruments, scenes from his many film roles, concert footage, and select pieces from Bowie’s paintings. Tying the whole thing together was an audio tour that changed as you moved through the exhibit, syncing up with whatever video component was featured in whichever room you were in.
Some of the show’s highlights included:
- In 1974 Bowie hoped to turn his Diamond Dogs album into a feature film called Hunger City. He created incredibly detailed scene breakdowns and storyboards for this proposed film. Not only were a significant selection of these storyboards on display, but the exhibition had employed an artist to create an animated sequence to bring Bowie’s vision for the film to life.
- One section of the exhibit was devoted to his pioneering music video output, divided into three distinct groupings focusing on the 70s, 80s, and 90s-10s with accompanying costumes and props. As the general public is most familiar with his 70s and 80s hits, I enjoyed seeing people sitting down to watch and listen to songs from his later years that they might never have heard before, like “Little Wonder”, “Hearts Filthy Lesson”, “Jump They Say” and “Blackstar.” I held out hope that it might inspire a few souls to explore his later works.
- Video footage of him and his band in studio during the recording of the Outside album, from 1995, which I consider to be one of the best albums of his career.
- Looking at the handwritten lyrics were a special treat, but the one that really stood out was 1976’s “Station to Station” which includes numerous lines that he crossed out and never used. It was interesting to discover the greater context of the song and what shape it could have taken had these thought paths been followed fully.
- Seeing the three costumes (okay, two costumes and puppet body) that he wore for his first appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1979 took me right back to my 11th-grade bedroom, watching his mind-blowing performances on my small portable color TV.
- Seeing the poster and costume from the stage play The Elephant Man excavated memories from 1980 of seeing news reports of his theater turn as the grotesquely deformed Joseph Merrick, not understanding how he could portray such a figure without the use of makeup or body prosthetics
I first encountered Bowie in 1975 at the age of 13 when his single “Fame” was climbing the American charts to become his first US #1 hit, and since then he has been a major part of the musical landscape of my life. And I discovered as moved through the galleries that while the exhibit was meant to be a retrospective of his life, it was also a look back at my own life. Because Bowie has been the soundtrack to pretty much every stage of my life and all of my ch-ch-ch-changes. That’s the power of music: it reminds us of who we have been and how we got to who we are now. It enables us to relive moments. That’s also the power of David Bowie: he was never stagnant, never complacent, always changing and always challenging.
In recent days, it has been announced that now that the exhibit has closed it will be converted into a virtual reality experience for visitors to enjoy in brand new ways. If David Bowie was anything, he was always innovative, especially when it came to technology, so this move is entirely in keeping with who he was and with upholding his legacy.
I feel that in a way, David Bowie Is was a closure. It was a way to say ‘goodbye’ to an artist that had an immense impact on my life. It was emotional and bittersweet. And I’m thoroughly grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it.
You can visit the Brooklyn Museum’s David Bowie Is page here.