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Love, Loss, and What David Bowie Wore

Love, Loss, and What David Bowie Wore

Illustration by Mike Thompson.

Illustration by Mike Thompson.

On January 10, 2016, two days after his sixty-ninth birthday and the release of his final album, news of David Bowie’s death shocked the world as only a small group of people were even aware that the singer had been ill. Over the course of that same day, the exhibition David Bowie is, which was about halfway through the show’s five-year tour, transformed from being a living retrospective to a posthumous memorial. 

It’s rare for an exhibition to outlive its subject, but the record-breaking show would continue on, reaching twelve cities and drawing over two million visitors. The ability for the show to continue without much change—even keeping the title in present tense—stems from the curators decision to focus on Bowie’s creative influences, thereby leaving much of the exhibition and its subject open to interpretation. 

Although Bowie’s wardrobe only constituted a small fraction of the materials that were featured in the exhibition, it was one of the key draws for the show and had perhaps the most powerful impact on visitors. Covering the biological body and conveying messages to the outside world, clothing is the ultimate barrier between private and public selves. Perhaps in no other exhibition I’ve seen has this function been more important than in David Bowie is, as the show revolved around the iconic costumes of a performer who had started his career using a series of constructed identities. Moreover, the chance to see Bowie’s clothing and imagine the body within also made such an intangible star seem more mortal than ever before. However, after learning about the singer’s death, the reality one had to face when viewing his costumes had transitioned to an entirely different level; not only was this “starman” capable of living on earth, he was also capable of dying like any other average being.


Before I continue, I suppose that I should provide a few quick disclaimers. One is that this article is not really a full review of David Bowie is nor is it an exhaustive analysis of its content and the curators’ methodology, which I’ve already done for another journal. [1] The second is that I’m a total superfan. Yet, instead of serving as glorified eulogy, this article explores how the meaning of the exhibition David Bowie is changed over the course of its lengthy run. Moreover, I hope to use the exhibition as a chance to question the perceived dichotomy between showcasing the work of a living artist and a deceased one.

I had the chance to see David Bowie is two times prior to the artist’s death (Chicago in 2014 and Paris in 2015), and twice more when it came to Brooklyn in 2018. As someone who loves history, yearning to know everything there is to know about a subject, I had latched onto Bowie as a focal point for my obsessive research tendencies. With such a well-documented life and career, he was the perfect subject, as I had access to images and information pertaining to almost every year of his life. Then, once Bowie was gone, I had discovered the limitations to my research. For the first time, there was a set beginning—and what felt like a very definitive end. Seeing a person’s entire life’s work in one exhibit space and knowing that the artist would no longer be making new work had made me come to terms with the ephemerality of my own life.

After a failed attempt to see the exhibition in 2013, when it was first announced and held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, I was ecstatic to learn that the show would be coming stateside in 2014. While numerous articles say that the exhibition was always intended to start in London and end in New York City, representing Bowie’s actual lifespan, this was not mentioned back then. Instead, every news source at the time claimed that Chicago would be the exhibition’s one and only stop in the United States, leading me to book a ticket to the Windy City in fear that it would be my only chance to see the show.

Not only was this “starman” capable of living on earth, he was also capable of dying like any other average being.

The second time I saw the exhibition was more serendipitous, as I had already planned to be in Paris during the time that the exhibition was being showcased at the Philharmonie de Paris. At the entrance to the show in Paris, a wall was inscribed with a quote from Bowie: “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” I believe the quote, which comes from the album notes of Bowie’s 1995 release 1.Outside, was prominently displayed at the front in order to clarify the retrospective’s unorthodox methodology. Only later, after Bowie’s death, would I realize just how much of the exhibition was open to interpretation.

In January 2016, Bowie had passed away while the exhibition was on display at its eighth stop, the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. I can only imagine the shock that visitors must have felt when seeing the exhibition the day he passed. The museum actually opened its doors to allow fans to come in and grieve despite it usually being closed on Mondays. Of course, this was also good for their profits, as they sold more than 17,000 tickets to the show in the hours following the news of Bowie’s death. [3]

When I heard the news that morning, I felt like someone had pulled a rug out from underneath me, and a giant hole had opened up in my stomach. After paying my respects at the massive memorial that had popped up outside of his apartment in Soho, I went back and listened to Blackstar with the enlightened perspective that nobody had when the album was released just two days earlier. Listening to lyrics such as “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and "Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you/I'm trying to/I'm dying to,” I almost had to laugh at how blatant the message was and how blissfully ignorant I had been two days before. Bowie had left us a beautiful message, and, as in life, did something totally unexpected, solidifying his status as an otherworldly badass who made fearless, groundbreaking art—even in the face of death. Like many fans, I had used Bowie as a bedrock from which I’ve formed numerous other aspects of my life. Now, being the first “loved one” that I had ever lost, he was helping me to determine how I should interpret death and move past my grief—a skill that I will undoubtedly use throughout the rest of my life.

Seeing a person’s entire life’s work in one exhibit space and knowing that the artist would no longer be making new work had made me come to terms with the ephemerality of my own life.

Of course, the apt timing of his album release did not go unnoticed. Having died peacefully at home, it’s safe to say that he hadn’t planned such a surprise ending to his life. Even so, his lifelong penchant for the theatrical still led many on the internet to wonder about it. To some, it also seemed strange that, after spending his final decade in almost complete isolation, he had left the world with his most private possessions on display in David Bowie is. In an article for NPR, Piotr Orlov poses the question: “If Blackstar, the album he unexpectedly released two days before his death and a treatise on mortality, is the final scene in a life well-played, might the exhibit have been created to serve as a knowing epilogue?” [2] Like Blackstar, it was hard to look at the exhibition after his death without searching for more complex meanings and morbid undertones. 

David Bowie is was extended for four weeks at the Groninger Museum due to its surge in popularity following Bowie’s death. Despite any initial hesitations felt by the exhibition’s creators, it continued for about two and half more years and traveled to the last four stops on its itinerary: Bologna, Tokyo, Barcelona, and, finally, to New York City, where it was met with as much fanfare as New Yorkers are willing to give to any sort of artist. [4]

Given that Bowie adopted New York as his hometown, I was excited to see how the exhibition would evolve there. However, despite its great hype, the final installation at the Brooklyn Museum was the most disappointing version that I had seen and I left feeling sad that New Yorkers didn’t get to have the same experience that I had had in other cities. For example, many of the dramatic sets that I had remembered from previous stagings were replaced by plain platforms that made it feel more like a standard museum exhibit rather than a trip into the creative mind of Bowie himself. It was also strange to see a mannequin wearing Bowie’s knitted, one-legged Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit by Kansai Yamamoto—perhaps his best-known look—displayed high upon a platform where nobody could clearly see it. As I watched visitors attempt to strain their necks to get a glimpse, I remembered how I was able to get just a few short feet away from the same mannequin in Paris. 

Illustration by Mike Thompson.

Illustration by Mike Thompson.

Despite its pitfalls, there were some exciting additions to the Brooklyn Museum show. For one, there was a new room dedicated to Bowie’s connections to the city of New York. To end the show, the curators also added a new section dedicated entirely to the development of his final album, Blackstar. The display featured notebook pages on which Bowie had written lyrics for songs on the album and as well as messy illustrations that he had made when thinking of concepts for the accompanying music videos. In addition to knowing that these pieces coincided with what was presumably his last creative work, it was striking to notice how his distinctive handwriting and messy scribbles had not changed at all from notebooks shown earlier in the exhibit, which were made when Bowie was first working on his seminal albums of the early 1970s. More than anything else, this comparison made me realize that, although his public personas and creative output changed often, Bowie was always the same person, up until the very end. 

As fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson writes in Adorned in Dreams, clothing and dress is “so much part of our living, moving selves” that it seems to “hint at something only half understood, threatening; the atrophy of the body, and the evanescence of life.” [5] This idea is eerily represented in the faces of the mannequins used for David Bowie is, many of which are covered by copies of a mask casted from the singer’s actual visage in 1975. While these masks seemed to have served the purpose of hiding the reclusive singer’s true identity in the exhibition prior to his death, they later felt more akin to funerary art. More specifically, they seemed to echo the European tradition of displaying effigy sculptures, which resembled the bodies of deceased persons and wore their clothes as a way to preserve their existence and memory through a venerated simulacrum. 

Despite the eerie qualities of the costumed mannequins, it’s certain that the exhibition developed a cathartic purpose for the fans who visited the show after Bowie’s death. While I do claim to be a superfan, I know that my personal connection to the singer is not necessarily unique. One of Bowie’s many appeals has always been his ability to forge such seemingly intimate bonds with millions of people, which is why his death felt like such a personal loss for me and countless other fans. Bowie provided a mirror for those who felt different from the rest of society, and his diverse music catalog served as the soundtrack for the lives of his fans. Scientists have found that music triggers brain activity that is associated with memory. [6] I know this to be true, and I’m definitely not the only one who feels pangs of bittersweet nostalgia when hearing Bowie’s music. The sights and sounds of the exhibition transported me back to the times in my life when he had served as a source of comfort and inspiration. Despite each visitor’s relationship to Bowie being completely different, the exhibition helped to bring fans together so that they could collectively confront their grief. 

Despite the eerie qualities of the costumed mannequins, it’s certain that the exhibition unintentionally developed a cathartic purpose for the fans who visited the show after his death.

Although it’s easy to see the exhibition as a fitting tribute to celebrate the life of a deceased artist, it’s important to remember that Bowie was still alive when the exhibition began. Numerous critics have implied that the context of an exhibition changes once the subject has passed away. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1983 retrospective on Yves Saint Laurent caused a scandal, leading the museum to forgo the practice of dedicating a monographic show to a living designer until the Comme des Garçons retrospective in 2017. The controversy stemmed from the perceived connection between the museum’s show and the economic interests of a particular designer. On the other hand, The Met’s retrospective on the work of Alexander McQueen in 2011 was able to sidestep notions of commercialism due to the fact that planning didn’t even begin until the designer had passed away. [7] David Bowie is was unique in how it was able to exist as both a profit-making retrospective of both a living and deceased artist’s work, showing how similar the two can be. 

The way that the exhibition changed before and after Bowie’s death also allows it to serve as an interesting case study for how museum curators can acknowledge or interpret the death of an artist within the context of an exhibition. While the present-tense of the show’s title seemed uncomfortable for some after the musician passed away, the curators decided that it seemed “more appropriate than ever,” attesting to how Bowie’s creative work seems to transcend space and time. In the words of the exhibit’s co-creator Victoria Broackes, “all of [Bowie’s] art and influences are, just as much as when he was alive, all around you.” [8] Still, it’s tough not to wonder how the exhibition would have been different if it had initially been conceived after Bowie’s death. 

Perhaps placing an emphasis on an artist’s influences and rejecting the linear structure of the classic retrospective is the key to curating exhibitions that seem relevant in any time, place, or context. Moreover, with the curator’s decision to keep things mostly the same before and after the death of its subject, David Bowie is seems to demonstrate that an exhibition need not be overly concerned with death and posthumous interpretations in order to still serve as a thoughtful memorial. It’s also possible that the nature of having visitors walk around with earphones, lost in their own thoughts and experiences, helps them to better understand and explore their grief by giving them the sensation that he’s always around them—and always will be.  

Perhaps placing an emphasis on an artist’s influences and rejecting the linear structure of the classic retrospective is the key to curating exhibitions that seem relevant in any time, place, or context.

As an archivist (but habitual apartment purger), I continue to be amazed that Bowie had the insight to keep thousands of his personal objects throughout his lifetime, eventually establishing a museum-quality archive space that made the exhibition possible and will allow his possessions to be preserved for decades (or centuries) to come. From his early lyric sheets to the tiny metal cocaine spoon that helped to fuel so much of his creativity in the mid-1970s, it’s hard to believe that all of these items have been kept together for so long. I also have to wonder: what will happen to Bowie’s massive clothing archive? Now that they’ve toured the world, are the garments destined to be locked up in storage, or will they find a new life as loaned objects for other fashion exhibitions? Considering that Bowie supposedly created a five-year plan that includes instructions for how he wanted his music to be recorded and released after his death, I can only assume that he made some kind of long-term plan for his material legacy as well. [9] 

There’s also some good news if you never had a chance to see the exhibition when it was on tour. Two days ago, on January 8th, 2019, an augmented reality version of David Bowie is was released on Apple’s App store and Google Play. For $7.99, smartphone users can, “explore the full museum show in stunning detail, in the intimacy of your own environment, without glass barriers or crowds of visitors.” For about one third of the price of the actual exhibition ticket, “This spectacular iteration of the iconic show is yours forever.” While I don’t think that the musician himself had any involvement with the development of the program, it’s a fitting continuation for the career of a man who is often noted for having had an incredibly spot-on ability to sense the potential of new technologies, including the internet. [10] “The experience is like that of listening to Blackstar,” British GQ reported. “It conjures the acute sense of a present absence.” [11] Even before Bowie’s death, this “acute sense” seems to have been imbedded into the core of the exhibition. The only thing that really changed was how visitors choose to interpret this absence.  

 

Notes:

[1] Sara Idacavage, “David Bowie is,” Fashion Theory 20, no. 4 (2015): 485-493.

[2] Piotr Orlov, “What You Could Take Away From 'David Bowie Is’,” NPR, published March 17, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2018/03/17/594326984/what-you-could-take-away-from-david-bowie-is

[3] Dan Howarth, “David Bowie Is... curator selects five creative moments that helped shape the musician's career ,” Dezeen, published January 14, 2016, https://www.dezeen.com/2016/01/14/david-bowie-is-exhibition-curator-picks-five-moments-designs/

[4] “Spotify Transports NYC Commuters to Mars with Immersive David Bowie Subway Takeover,” For the Record, published April 17, 2018, https://newsroom.spotify.com/2018-04-17/spotify-transports-nyc-commuters-to-mars-with-immersive-david-bowie-subway-takeover/.

[5] Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams (London: Rutgers University Press, 2003) 

[6] Jeremy Hsu, “Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain,” Livescience, published February 24, 2009, https://www.livescience.com/5327-music-memory-connection-brain.html

[7] Rachel Corbett, “After His Suicide, the Met Scrambled to Salute Alexander McQueen,” The Observer, published March 8, 2011,https://observer.com/2011/03/after-his-suicide-the-met-scrambled-to-salute-alexander-mcqueen/.

[8] Mary Von Aue, “David Bowie Retrospective Starts Its Final Bow at Brooklyn Museum,” Billboard, published March 1, 2018, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/musicnews/david-bowie-retrospective-starts-its-final-bow-at-brooklyn-museum/ar-BBJLzJ3

[9] Jose Boss, “Beat of His Drum”, Guitar Player, published December 11, 2018, https://www.guitarplayer.com/players/beat-of-his-drum.

[10] Chris Nuttall, “BeAFan@davidbowie.com,” published September 1, 1998, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/162363.stm.

[11] Charlie Burton, “The David Bowie AR app conjures the sense of a present absence,” British GQ, published January 3, 2019, https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/david-bowie-is-ar-app

The Countess of Greffulhe: Between Muse and Master of Her Self-image

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