After a five-year, worldwide tour, this massive, immersive exhibit dedicated to singular artist David Bowie has arrived in his adopted home of New York City. It opened March 2 at the Brooklyn Museum and will be here through July 15. Curated by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s nothing short of extraordinary, and while you might not think it’s a show for kids—although you might: we saw little ones there on opening day—we’re here to tell you differently.
In addition to showcasing a mind-boggling number of pieces from throughout Bowie’s life and career, David Bowie Is is immersive, thanks to high-end Sennheiser headphones visitors don upon entering the show. The audio you hear as you move through the exhibit changes depending on where you are, what you’re looking at, etc. It’s interviews, tracks from albums, live performances, etc.
Note: while it’s sorely tempting to snap some photos with all the Bowie memorabilia on display, no photos or video is allowed, and phones must be set to airplane mode before entering the show. Also note: the show has a couple of depictions of male nudity (on a print of ancient statues, for example), and Bowie’s “coke spoon”, popular with the artist in the 70s. Just FYI.
Bowie Loved Music
The exhibit starts off in South London, where Bowie, then David Jones, grew up, and, as he tells you himself—via voiceover and those headphones—loved music. He explains he had a particular penchant for jazz, which he also readily admits he didn’t understand. The show features more than 400 objects from Bowie’s personal archives, and that includes his earliest instruments, a saxophone and guitar, on display in this section.
cover photo: Duffy Archive & David Bowie Archive
Bowie Liked Space
Following the section dedicated to Bowie’s childhood and brief stint as a youthful moptop, is the “Major Tom” moment. Like many people at the time, Bowie was compelled by the moon landing of 1969 and the iconic photo of “Earthrise” captured by astronaut Bill Anders.
Now officially David Bowie, he released Space Oddity, with the single containing the interstellar explorer character who he would return to throughout his career. The song is showcased here with a few videos of Bowie performing it, as well as the space suit he wears in one, and the art that influence the album cover.
photo: David Bowie Archives
Bowie Wore What He Wanted
It’s hard to think of another artist who pushed sartorial boundaries as much as Bowie. As the show explains, he stunned the UK with his performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops clad in a quilted, psychedelic jumpsuit, red boots, and sporting a head of spiky, bright red hair. (Hard to imagine, but it’s true. The show helps visitors “witness” the performance with life-size video projection of it.) At the time, people could not believe what they saw, and Bowie reveled in pushing the envelope of what was acceptable dress—for a public figure, for a musician, for a man, for anyone—for years to come.
One of the most amazing aspects of the show is the vast collection of Bowie’s costumes worn throughout his career, including jumpsuits, the memorable blue suit from the “Life on Mars” video (which plays next to the outfit in its own gallery), sky high heels and Japanese sandals, short silk kimonos, and pieces of overwhelming size.
photo: The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum
Bowie Was a Collaborator
While a formidable artist on his own, throughout his career, Bowie repeatedly, continually sought out collaborators. Several of his longtime partners are featured here, including favored costume designers Freddie Burretti and Kansai Yamamoto, producer Tony Visconti, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and makeup artist Pierre Laroche, the last of whom created the iconic lighting bolt on the musician’s face on the Aladdin Sane cover.
Other partners included Alexander McQueen (whom Bowie identified early on in his design career) and writer William S. Boroughs. A fun collaboration with artist/musician Laurie Anderson, in which the she and Bowie called each other and drew in silence, is also shown here, a wall of surprisingly similar line sketches.
Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum
David Bowie Was a Perpetual Student
You couldn’t ask for a better example of a lifelong learner than Bowie. His influences, ranging from Japanese culture to German Expressionism to Little Richard to Oscar Wilde (and many more) are all discussed and explored. One very memorable piece in the show is the tour case he had outfitted to contain a small portion of his vast book collection, filled with select titles from his library.
Original lyrics for Ziggy Stardust, by David Bowie, 1972. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum
Bowie Made His Thoughts a Reality and Wasn’t Afraid to Fail
Over and over again, David Bowie Is shows how the musician took notes, made sketches, models, mock-ups—and then brought them to fruition.
The sheer amount of work Bowie produced is overwhelming, and it’s clear that part of how he managed to do this is that he never stopped exploring, experimenting, and trying new things. One of the themes of his career, and therefore the show, is his perpetual momentum forward, shaking off past achievements and expectations.
About 2/3 of the way through the show, you encounter the period when he was doing a lot of painting and the resulting work; later, you’re reminded that he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway, and relied on his mime training to portray the character’s physical maladies. If David Bowie ever thought, “But what if I’m bad at it?” (which he probably did) he did not let that stop him.
David Bowie, 1971. Photograph by Brian Ward. Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
Bowie Said Be Who You Are (and Have Fun)
Bowie was really good at playing “dress up”, and famously reinvented himself over and over again to provocative effect. David Bowie Is captures that freewheeling, hungry, creative spirit, as well as the joy Bowie seemingly brought to his endeavors.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the show—it’s big, and full of rich, wild imagery. The area showcasing live performance, with towering video screens and the only audio played not on the headphones, but “live”, is pure invigorating spectacle. (The clips contain rare footage of the Diamond Dogs tour, filmed in Philadelphia.)
Will really young kids “get it”? Probably not. But they’ll know they saw somebody doing their thing, their way. And we’re betting they’ll never forget it.
David Bowie Is
Through July 15; museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Tickets: Adults (13-64): $25 weekends; $20 weekdays; Ages 4 to 12: $10 weekends; $6 weekdays
200 Eastern Parkway
What’s your family’s favorite David Bowie song? Tell us in the comments!