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Critics' Choice
REVIEW: DAVID BOWIE IS IN NEW YORK
3/1/18

Photo credit: John Robert Rowlands 

By Phil Gallo

Since 2012, the David Bowie Is exhibit has made its way to 11 venues, among them Chicago, Berlin and its starting place, London. It’s been seen by 1.79m people. Bowie wanted its tour to end where he did, in New York City, and on Friday it will open at the Brooklyn Museum for a four-month run through 7/15.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum organized the exhibit with the intention that it be like no other museum presentation it has presented. They have succeeded. It’s a compelling, immersive experience that, for fans who will undoubtedly connect with certain videos and artifacts, is quite emotional as well.

David Bowie Is positions Bowie as a thinker, an integrationist who turns ideas from philosophy, literature, Little Richard and theater into music. It’s a celebration of his bold inventions of characters and costumes, and adaptations of musical styles that one would be surprised to find in a single record collection let alone one artist’s oeuvre: Philly soul, glam rock, pre-WWII German songs, electronic music and, eventually, the free jazz he listened to as a teenager.

The exhibit, which includes about 100 items not shown at other stops, is set up to engage the viewer and force them to examine elements of Bowie’s life in depth. Visitors are giving headphones—which wonderfully prevents sound bleeds and makes the exhibit feel rather intimate—and in the early part of the exhibit, we hear Bowie speak about his childhood, his ambitions as an artist, where he got his ides and his thoughts about what he might have been had music not panned out. (Answer: A novelist.)

Soon the audio becomes a musical soundtrack, songs paired with the visual you’re facing: Bowie performing “Starman” on Top of the Pops; a Saturday Night Live performance from 1979; “fame” on Soul Train”; videos of “Space Oddity,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” “Dancing for Blue Jean,” “Blackstar” and more. Each video is surrounded by the pertinent costumes and/or lyric sheets.

For the man who coined the phrase Sound + Vision, the organizers could have just as easily used that title for the exhibit as it does focus on the relationship between Bowie’s visuals and his music. Unlike most exhibits dedicated to musicians, there are few instruments—just the EMS synthesizers used on “Heroes”; the “Space Oddity” 12-string, the banjo from Baal and the saxophone used on Pinups—no collection of album covers with metadata or chart positions on a label; no photos capturing the artist performing in clubs or in front of thousands of fans.

The set up in 25 “areas” is loosely chronological—his school days are at the entrance and Blackstar artifacts fill the space before the well-stocked gift shop—but in no way does it delve into specifics about his career path or how popular one era might be compared with the next; there are more items related to his late ‘80s Glass Spider tour and the albums Never Let Me Down and Tonight and than one of his commercial peaks, the Let’s Dance album from 1983 and its Serious Moonlight tour. An uninformed visitor would be well-served to show up with a Bowie timeline or at least a Wikipedia page.

By focusing on Bowie as an artist, it is an astonishing statement about change and evolution, how Bowe’s characters such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke made an impression and then were cast off. The exhibit, which has about 500 objects and about 60 costumes, is filled with sketches and photos that reveal how album covers and stage sets came about. There’s also a collection of clips from his film roles and an area devoted to his run on Broadway in The Elephant Man. The smallest object in the exhibition is his coke spoon from the early 1970s.

Toward the end of the exhibit, a room shows concert footage from multiple periods. (I could have sat there for hours), and in the final hallway, there’s a behind-the-scenes film of Bowie playing guitar and singing during a Herb Ritts photo shoot. It personalizes the collection, giving you the sense he was a playful, approachable and joyous spirit, happy to engage and share.

Details on the exhibit, which has a mega-deluxe package, can be found here.

Photo credits: Heroes contact sheet, Masayoshi Sukita; Aladdin Sane contact sheet, Photo Duffy; The Kon-rads, Roy Ainsworth