Is 'David Bowie is' the best rock star exhibit ever?
The Brooklyn Museum is the show's final stop on a five-year world tour. It runs through July.
When Matthew Yokobosky was a high school student in the southwestern Pennsylvania coal country town of Republic in the late 1970s, he had a particularly cool art teacher named Mr. Lucostic with whom he would exchange vinyl LPs.
"I brought my Talking Heads albums in," recalls Yokobosky, 53, who is now chief of exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. "And then he brought in David Bowie's entire catalog. He handed me the bag and said: 'I think you need to listen to these.' And I spent months, really, doing that. I mean just looking at the album covers alone … It was a big, wide-open window to another world."
Flash forward to 2013, when — three years before the rock star's death — the "David Bowie is" exhibition opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Super fan Yokobosky saw the multimedia extravaganza in the English capital, correctly judged it to be "just fantastic," and began envisioning the show somehow making its way to Brooklyn.
This weekend, that vision becomes reality. The newly expanded "David Bowie is" arrives in New York on the final and only East Coast stop of a five-year world tour. The exhibition, which runs though July 19 at the Brooklyn Museum, uses a collection of over 400 costumes, videos, sketches, diary entries, and ephemeral artifacts — including a piece of tissue that Bowie used to wipe off his lipstick in the 1970s — to paint a shape-shifting portrait of the massively influential and much loved changeling rock star.
The Brooklyn version of "David Bowie is" is one-third larger than it's been anywhere around the globe, including stops in São Paulo, Barcelona and Melbourne. Yokobosky, who hopes over 150,000 people see the show in New York, cocurated its final stop with the V & A's Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. He added over 100 items, including a focus on Young Americans, the 1975 album recorded at Sigma Sound Studios that highlights Bowie's special relationship with Philadelphia.
Artifacts assembled include a handwritten note mapping out a never-made Young Americans film, sketches for alternative album covers, and vocal charts for backup singers, who included Luther Vandross and Bowie's then-girlfriend Ava Cherry.
The exhibition ends with art made by fans and given to their hero that, bless his heart, Bowie didn't toss in the garbage bin. Another Philly addition is a reproduction of a photograph of Bowie taken in Philadelphia during the recording of Young Americans by Eric Stephen Jacobs.
When the singer's death in January 2016 set off a cycle of social-media-fueled pop-cultural mourning, the Philly fans who kept vigil for him outside the recording studio during the Young Americans sessions placed a reproduction of Jacobs' photos outside Bowie's New York apartment as part of a spontaneous memorial. The inscription reads: "We Love You — Sigma Kids." It's the last image the museum-goer sees before leaving the exhibit.
"David Bowie is" is far and away the best rock star museum show I've ever seen. The immediate point of comparison is the Rolling Stones' perfectly good Exhibitionism, which opened in New York in 2016.
That show had some cool stuff in it, like a re-creation of the band's unkempt London flat in their salad days. But like most hagiographic museum shows, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and elsewhere, it essentially boiled down to a collection of inanimate objects — lots of guitars and stage clothes — that don't seem quite so magical in the absence of the musicians who played and wore them.
By contrast, "David Bowie is" lives and breathes. That's largely because the theatrically savvy and intellectually adventurous Bowie is the ideal subject for such a survey, as probably the most visually astute pop star of all time who, as Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet puts it, made music that amounted to "conceptual art delivered through popular culture."
If ever there was a rock star ideally suited for the audiovisual museum treatment, it's Bowie. Early on in his five-decade-plus career, Bowie was already making videos like the "Space Oddity" clip from 1969 that helped send him into orbit.
"By the time MTV started, David was so far out ahead of everybody else," says Yokobosky. The first day the cable music station went on the air in 1981, it had two Bowie videos in rotation, including "Boys Keep Swinging." The Brooklyn show includes a clip of that song from 1979's Lodger, which finds the suit-and-tie straight-looking Bowie accompanied by three backup singers who at first appear to be women but — of course — all turn out to be Bowie in drag.
What really makes "David Bowie is" so transporting, however, is the way its sound works in harmony with the artist's vision. The exhibit is a partnership with German audio company Sennheiser, and ticket holders are given a set of headphones as they enter. There's nothing novel about that, but instead of the typical on-demand audio guide museum experience, there are 26 different areas in the exhibit in which different "audio environments" are automatically set off as you move from room to room.
In that sense, the exhibit is truly immersive. So much so that museum-goers at the press preview I attended kept bumping into each other in the silent galleries. Hey, rock critic guy, watch where you're going!
When a life-size orange-haired Bowie pops up on screen as Ziggy Stardust to sing "Starman" on Top of The Pops in 1972, you hear that in your headphones. But strolling into another room might trigger a clip from the Dick Cavett show in 1974 when Bowie covered the Flares' 1961 hit "Foot Stompin'." Carlos Alomar's guitar lick in that song would later by repurposed for Young Americans' "Fame," which is seen in the version Bowie performed on Soul Train the next year.
"David Bowie is" is full of gems. There's the 1964 BBC appearance in which a 17-year-old Bowie — then known by his given name David Jones — was interviewed on behalf of an organization he founded called "The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Men with Long Hair." In a 1973 BBC profile, the space-age rock star is depicted as a scandalous threat to respectable society. "This is the face that Britain wants," the horrified narrator says. "An ex-art student from Brixton, he has turned himself into a bizarre self-constructed freak."
"David Bowie is" puts its polymath subject in context. There's a Bowie-on-film section that shows him on Broadway in The Elephant Man in 1981 and as the Goblin King in Labyrinth in 1986. Are you an avid reader? Probably not so much so as Bowie, who had pre-Kindle-era carrying cases built to carry 400 books on the road, including volumes by James Baldwin, Anthony Burgess, and Yukio Mishima.
The avant-garde pop star's influences are given proper credit. A 1979 Saturday Night Live clip shows Bowie performing "The Man Who Sold the World" while wearing an oversize black-and-white tuxedo suit that rendered him immobile. The actual suit is on hand, and so are drawings from Sonia Delaunay's designs for Tristan Tzara's 1923 play The Gas Heart, which inspired it.
Who is — or was — David Bowie? "David Bowie is" inspires with its depiction of Bowie's undying compulsion to create, but it wisely doesn't try to answer that question definitively. Bowie was an artist for whom identity was usefully diffuse and changeable, and the art of disguise and the presentation of an ambiguous self was a creative tool far more valuable than putting forth any one allegedly authentic version of the self.
Early on in the exhibit, Bowie is heard recalling his own youthful musings on the subject. "I was wondering if I should try to be me," he remembers thinking. "It was much easier to be somebody else. That worked better."