The ‘David Bowie is’ Exhibition — The Past, Present and Future of the Thin White Duke

The ‘David Bowie is’ Exhibition — The Past, Present and Future of the Thin White Duke

“No matter how many times I see it, I always learn something new about David,” pianist Mike Garson told me, after visiting the final stop of the David Bowie is exhibition in Brooklyn. “And I worked with him for 45 years!”

David Bowie’s final tour — a remarkable museum show built around the legend’s vast archive of stage clothes, videos, recordings, and a remarkable trove of personal mementos from the late-musician’s career — came to a close this past summer. Bowie died in January 2016, but the exhibition, entitled David Bowie is, wrapped up July 15th, after a five-month stint in Bowie’s adopted hometown, at the Brooklyn Museum (http://brooklynmuseum.org). It also went out on a world tour that began at the Victoria & Albert Museum in Bowie’s native London in 2012, and has included stops in Chicago, as well as cities in France, Australia, Holland, Italy, Japan, Brazil and Spain.

After the physical exhibition closed, it was revealed that it will live on as an immersive “digital experience” soon — which sounds amazing.

Throughout, the exhibition has re-written the rules about both how we see Bowie, and what is possible — whether an artist is alive or not — when a career is as groundbreaking and sprawling as the Thin White Duke’s was.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, last month, the Brooklyn Museum hosted the two millionth visitor to the exhibition.

“It really exceeded all of our expectations,” Geoffrey Marsh, from the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the exhibition originated, told me. “It’s been an amazing and exciting way for David Bowie’s fans — and even people just discovering him — to connect with him in a unique and extraordinary and completely immersive way.”

“We’re seeing interest across all age groups, and all types of people,” Matthew Yokobosky, the director of exhibition design at the Brooklyn Museum, and lifelong Bowie fan, added.

As a result of the success of David Bowie is, other rock icons are exploring the market for similar shows. The Rolling StonesExhibitionism show of not much more than costumes and guitars, has drawn healthy crowds, while fellow U.K. rock pioneers Pink Floyd’s astonishing recent V&A-curated show Their Mortal Remains, which is now in Rome, has sought, like the Bowie exhibition, to rewrite the rulebook of what is possible via a unique blend of audio, video and elements like stage sets and even a recreation of the band’s original VW van, to tell their story.

“People like David Bowie, and a band like Pink Floyd, are different, though,” Marsh insisted. “For them, it was never just about the music. Obviously, that came first. But their stories are both so visually and artistically-based, I think they are unique and make shows like David Bowie is and Their Mortal Remains possible.”

“Pink Floyd’s career was always synonymous with a very strong visual language, which gave us so much to tap into,” Ray Winkler, the CEO and Design Director of Stufish, who worked with Marsh and the V&A as the exhibition architects of Their Mortal Remains, told me. “We had so much beyond just the music to draw from.”

“Unlike David Bowie, If you wanted to display anything of Pink Floyd’s, it would probably just be a pair of jeans and a back shirt,” Winkler told me, laughing at the thought. “That’s as far as costumes went with Pink Floyd, whereas Bowie, obviously, had fantastic costumes, and a whole glamour element throughout a career that was very multimedia-oriented. But Pink Floyd, we found, had developed a huge catalog of visuals that were independent of — and sort of ran in parallel with — the band’s musical career, and that helped us tell the story.”

The V&A, not surprisingly, faced no such hurdles when mounting David Bowie is.

Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum
David Bowie is, March 2, 2018 through July 15, 2018, installation view.
(Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

“I grew up with David Bowie, so he’s very real to me, even though he’s gone,” Yokobosky told me. “A lot of people coming to the show will not have that same connection, though. So it was important for us to put David Bowie in the here and now — in the present tense — and I think that’s what people will take away from the show: That David Bowie’s impact as an artist is enormous — and certainly much bigger than I realized before we started working on this show — and that he is still everywhere.”

“It’s just an amazing exhibition,” Garson, Bowie’s pianist for much of his career, and who will lead the A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni tour in 2019 after a successful first run of the Celebrating David Bowie outing featuring a band of Bowie alums, told me after viewing the exhibition recently. “It’s very big, so you need two hours to see it properly. There’s everything from a diagram of everyone who had influenced the music David made — I saw my name on there next to Brian Eno and Mick Ronson, and I was really touched, and there’s a giant screen showing us performing somewhere, that I’d never seen. It’s just so immersive,  and not just a bunch of costumes and memorabilia, which were always amazing, of course. It’s a really special experience. It makes David come alive again.”

“That’s exactly what we wanted to accomplish,” Matthew Yokobosky, said, when I mentioned Garson’s response.

“The breadth of David Bowie’s work and life — musician, painter, actor, writer, fashion and gay rights icon — was staggering to me when I first got involved with this project,” the V&A’s Victoria Broakes, confessed to me at the exhibition launch, this Spring. “I quickly came to realize that his work was far more suited to this sort of exhibition than, say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We’re a museum of art, design and form, so the visual is incredibly important. It’s something we can do well. I think other places, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, can focus on the music and show instruments and that sort of thing, but for us the visual is really key.”

“But we’re doing what we regularly do, which is put on exhibitions,” Broakes added. “What’s the added piece in this one was to find a way to bring a live performance subject to life. We worked really hard to make that work, and we weren’t totally sure that we had made it work until we opened David Bowie is to the public in 2012. It was just an incredible moment.”

“There’s a whole generation of people who grew up with these important moments, and they want to see that story to shown back to them, Ray Winkler, of Stufish, said. “They were not just great artists, they were artists who really knew their craft, and so these exhibitions show how they beautifully wove together their incredible talent for music with an incredible talent to express that in some visual manor. Just having the time to reflect on some of these things, in a world where bands disappear like melting snow, it’s nice to see something that had real substance and survived beyond the lifespan of the artists themselves. That is what museums do best: They put these things into a time capsule that allows you to look at it at your own pace, in a world that is increasingly pressing the fast forward button, and to think about what amazing work these truly unique artists created.”

For Yokobosky, though, it was a labor of love that he will surely be sad to come to a close.

“This was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my career,” he said, reflecting. “I don’t know what will come next, but I can’t imagine that now — with all of the wonderful artifacts we’ve discovered along the way, and the story that we’ve been able to tell, and all the people we’ve touched — that everything will just go back into crates and into some warehouse somewhere. That would just be so sad. And if there’s a permanent museum someday, well, I’ll be the first in line!”

2 Responses to "The ‘David Bowie is’ Exhibition — The Past, Present and Future of the Thin White Duke"

  1. Zane Wilde   September 13, 2018 at 9:51 am

    LOVING THE ALIEN-ICONOCLAST!!

    Reply
  2. Mont   September 17, 2018 at 11:27 am

    Seeing this exhibit in Chicago was moving, amazing and astonishing. Being a Bowie fan from 1972 till present day it still overwhelmed myself and the group of Bowiefiles/friends that went with me. Truly groundbreaking…

    Reply

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