David Bowie’s Multi-Verse

Written by:

The immersive exhibit “David Bowie Is” (hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum) closes in less than a week at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Advance tickets are completely sold out, and lines to get into the exhibition (with guests of every age) wind through the (Young) American Wing.

Beyond lie treasures of Bowie’s sound and vision, including costumes, handwritten lyrics, posters, paintings, collaborations, videos, interviews, and other pretty things, all organized by an audio guide. Aficionados of Bowie’s wordplay (this author included) will find the “Verbasizer” intriguing—a computer program that Bowie helped to design, which randomly reorganizes sentences into new linguistic potpourri.

David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

At the entrance to the exhibition, “Space Oddity” reverberates in your ears (incidentally, it is also playing in the Tesla roadster Elon Musk recently sent into orbit with a Starman dummy in the driver’s seat). The track was released on July 11, 1969, when Bowie was just twenty-two. It is now a beacon for the evolution of Bowie’s five-decade career, a diverse wonderland of extraterrestrial themes from “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” to “Life on Mars” and “Lady Stardust.”

But the importance of space to David Bowie is not limited to floating in a tin can. Bowie is unique in his use of themes of otherness and alienation to lift off rather than isolate the individual. One might consider the difference between Bowie’s spirited alienation and the tragic alienation of fashion designer, Alexander McQueen (e.g., McQueen’s futuristic collection modeled after Plato’s Atlantis, which imagines an impending apocalypse that would transform humans into water creatures). McQueen designed a number of Bowie’s outfits, including the famous Union Jack coat Bowie wears on the cover of Earthling (1997), which is made from a worn-out flag peppered with bullet holes and cigarette burns.

Even with dark songs such as “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” and “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon), or Bowie’s early mime work on “The Mask”—in which an actor discovers that what was once a removable face has now gotten stuck—Bowie still manages to combine futility with aspiration.

Bowie Is Someone Else

Being someone else might mean wanting to hide or die, or it might mean wanting to break out of one mask into another mask, because no mask purely obscures or reveals what one is. This is another sort of death—maybe the only sort that we can know. Bowie’s ever-shifting masks do not seem to have diminished, but rather to have enlivened, his identity as an artist. He is who he is because he is not who he is. He is special because he is grounded in a restless non-specific.

While Bowie’s death in 2016 stunned the earth, his afterlife seems to have been orchestrated with near preternatural control. Bowie released his final album, Blackstar, just two days before he died. It includes such tracks as “Lazarus,” written from the perspective of his own resurrection, and “Blackstar,” which is a rock ballad for cosmic apotheosis.

For those of us who love the alien, the “door to dreams” can never close. David Bowie has no final resting place. His death was his next verse—the no man’s land behind every mask.


Flowers and gifts left by fans outside of David Bowie’s apartment a week after his death (January 16, 2016)