How The “David Bowie Is” Show Made A Fan Out Of A Bowie Skeptic
As is the case for many people of my generation, my introduction to David Bowie came from my parents, who played his albums all the time as I was growing up. "It's a shame you'll never get to experience him live," they said; he was one of their top concert-going experiences ever. And I understood: He was a legend. I could appreciate that without feeling it for myself. And so while I enjoyed his "Nature Boy" cover for the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, when Bowie died in January 2016, I felt sad mostly because I could feel how hard my parents and other fans (including some friends my own age) were experiencing the loss. As for how I experienced it... I think I posted an Instagram honoring him because it felt like the right thing to do. (Cool posturing, Hayden.)
Maybe the reason I didn't feel a strong connection to Bowie was because there was always something about him I found intimidating. Perhaps it was his freedom. Or maybe it was his fearlessness? Honestly, it was probably both—fearlessness and freedom are a potent, strange cocktail.
But I'm realizing more and more that there's never a bad time to face the strange, which is exactly what I did recently when I visited the "David Bowie is" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I did more than just face the strange, though. I walked up to it, around it, and almost touched it. I get it now. I feel it. I see from where my hesitation stemmed, and how facing the many complicated iterations of Bowie feels like facing my complicated self.
After a five-year, international tour, the show has finally touched down at its final stop in Brooklyn, just as Bowie intended. It's a spellbinding show, an education in Bowie—his influence, his artistic growth, his queerness. For a queer person exploring their gender identity, "David Bowie is" is a masterclass of radical self-love and self-expression. Because Bowie did it, so can I.
One of the things about Bowie that intimidated me was the breadth of his work. Where was I supposed to begin? With the hits? Or with his start as David Jones? Matthew Yokobosky, the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition design director, takes the guesswork out of the whole thing by foregoing chronological order. This means that "David Bowie is" takes the focus off the temporal context of Bowie's many incarnations and, instead, centers on his artistic process and how that process is the thread that connects Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke to Jareth from the 1986 film Labyrinth. Coming face-to-face with Bowie's suit measurements and looking up to see his costumes humanizes the Starman.
Through intimate sketches and personal objects, Bowie comes closer to Earth. It doesn't detract from the mythic qualities of the man, but it does allow you to stand before Bowie (or, a life-size photo of him, anyway) and look him in the eye, and perhaps recognize your own potential for greatness, because of how powerfully you can feel his passion and commitment to self-expression through every costume, every poster, every set design. Without saying anything, Bowie says to just do it; go and live your fantasy. The show makes clear that—intimidating though it may be, David Bowie is the epitome of that freedom. Even in death, Bowie is ahead of the times.
"David Bowie is" runs through July 15 at the Brooklyn Museum.