BERLIN — It was impossible, having been born in the 1980s, not to memorize David Bowie’s song with Queen, “Under Pressure” (1981), as well as Bowie’s first top-five hit, at age 22, “Space Oddity” (1969) — a song that went on to actually be the first played in space. But I never had a direct relationship with Bowie’s music, the way I did with some of his contemporaries (Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, King Diamond). I only found “Fame” (1975) through the God Lives Underwater cover (1998), which I downloaded from Napster. For a while I’ve been “terrified to admit this publicly.”
I grew up watching Labyrinth (1986), but the original soundtrack, co-written and performed by Bowie, especially “Magic Dance,” was too self-aware, almost mocking in its performance of the fantasy story and villain. I preferred dead serious: Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), for example. Of course, Legend, with its torrents of falling glitter, outrageous costumes, an ultra-camp performance by Tim Curry as Darkness, and an unreal soundtrack by the German electronic band Tangerine Dream, was 100% Bowie.
The David Bowie exhibition — now on view at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin — exposes how total and singular was the man’s influence on art, music, fashion, and culture. I now realize he somehow inflected nearly everything else in my life. The Cure, Madonna, Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (1990) — none of these would exist in the same way without Bowie.
Ridley Scott, again: The replicants in Blade Runner (1982) are David Bowies. Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) crashes in slow motion through multiple layers of glass display cases spewing artificial snow, while wearing a transparent plastic trench coat surrounded by blinking neon lights. Pris (Daryl Hannah) explores a late-19th-century apartment building filled with toys, curios, and futuristic domestic technology. This image from Blade Runner reminds me of the cavernous spaces I grew up exploring at Clark St & Belmont Ave in Chicago: architecture from the same time period, pink fur, glittering sequins, gold lamé, neon lighting. This entire aesthetic came out of 1970s glam rock, of which Bowie is the premier example. Pris wears a black, skin-tight bodysuit with bleached white cropped hair. She spray-paints a black line across her closed eyes. She is almost exactly David Bowie as his stage persona Ziggy Stardust — the one that Bowie says nearly drove him mad. In an exquisitely designed vitrine at Martin-Gropius-Bau, illuminated from within by a concealed neon light, a David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust mannequin lays dead, his head pillowed on some antique newspapers, beneath a painting depicting two David Bowies pointing at one another. But Ziggy also changed style and fashion forever. Kate Moss appeared on the cover of British Vogue in 2003 as David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, and again in 2011 for Paris Vogue.
In the retrospective, one massive room approximates the feeling of being at a Bowie concert. Film footage is projected on all four walls, edge to edge, and when the projections dim, a wall of costumes is revealed. The costumes have been hidden behind a mesh sheet that received the projection, stretched taut over a grid of 2x2m boxes, stacked like the set of a game show. At times, multiple David Bowies appear on the boxes, projected over his original costumes beneath the transparent screen: David Bowie on David Bowie. An older English gentleman standing near me was literally moved to tears.
The costumes range wildly, from classic English punk (leather jackets, chains, tight jeans, big lace-up boots) to decaying 18th-century French nobility (think Dangerous Liaisons  and Interview with the Vampire ), to dystopic, futuristic modifications to the silhouette à la Alexander McQueen, especially oversize jumpsuits stretched in fabulous directions. Of course, Bowie must have inspired McQueen’s incomparable design. The two actually collaborated a number of times, a kind of meta-Bowie move; how many artists can, through their monumental influence on popular culture, sculpt a young mind from childhood and then collaborate with that person later on? On view here we have a 1995 Alexander McQueen tire print suit, which Bowie wore to promote his I.Outside album (1995). More broadly, every supervillain from every movie between the 1970s and now seems modeled after Bowie’s costume design. They made me feel so nostalgic, even though I had really never seen them before.
Back to Tim Curry: in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), during “Sweet Transvestite,” Curry appears wearing a huge cloak, which he strips off suddenly as the bass drops, revealing a leather corset and red glittering platform heels. This is a total Bowie move — the oversize cloak, which was ceremoniously stripped off during the Aladdin Sane tour (1973) to reveal Kansai Yamamoto’s extravagant costume designs (also on view in the exhibition). I remember going to a Halloween screening of Rocky Horror in Andersonville, Chicago, with everyone screaming out hidden subtexts (“elbow sex!”) and emphatically singing along. This was perhaps merely a re-creation of a re-creation of the cult that surrounded Bowie in the ’70s in the UK.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) references Bowie even more directly. Director John Cameron Mitchell appropriated lyrics from Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979) to tell Hedwig’s origin story. And the concluding image, when Hedwig — now neither man nor woman — stands tall in the blue spotlight and sings the heart-wrenching “Midnight Radio,” (a scene which also recalls Rocky Horror’s concluding song, “I’m Going Home”) pulls from nothing more than Bowie. The androgynous glam star, the glitter makeup, the elevation of rock to a kind of religion — these are his legacies. Bowie co-produced the 1999 LA production of the musical.
Bowie spent time in Berlin, moving to Schöneberg — the city’s historic district that served as a safe haven for artists and the queer community throughout the 20th century — to clean up his drug addiction in 1976. He lived with Iggy Pop, collaborated with Brian Eno, and went to the café with Michel Foucault (as you do). And so the current version of the exhibition has been tailored to the city, focusing on Bowie’s time here, the German Expressionist art he vigorously sought out, how he specifically addressed the Berlin Wall, and more. Christine Heidemann, a curator at Martin-Gropius-Bau, has added innumerable local artifacts, including Bowie’s Berlin apartment keys.
Like IKEA, the museum controls your movement through the show in a linear trajectory and discourages wandering. Wall texts show up almost more frequently than photographs and artworks. Each uniquely colored room (navy, white, red, black) is given a name, starting from the premise of the show’s original title, David Bowie is: “David Bowie is waiting for a future that will never come to pass”; “David Bowie is wearing many masks”; “David Bowie is moving like a tiger on Vaseline.”
Bowie’s expressive paintings — such as “Mona in Berlin” (1977), so stylistically tied to German Expressionism — give a peculiar twist to his output. Despite their amateurism, they show how fearlessly he moved from medium to medium, cycling through drawings, paintings, poetry, film, acting, and performance in addition to music.
The headphones for the audio tour blast his music so loudly it can be overheard by anyone nearby who neglected to rent them. This in addition to the music piped into the space, like Bowie belting out “Rock n’ Roll Suicide.” Fittingly, the exhibition is as much an aural experience as a visual one.
There’s also an unimaginable amount of film footage and photography: was there ever a moment when Bowie was not on camera? The video projections and grids of TV screens mesmerize audiences; they stand dumbfounded and transfixed. David Bowie continues to awe the public.
But the real treasure is the stash of original pages of his modest spiral notebooks. In them, he composed lyrics and how they might be put to music, performed, and turned into video, all simultaneously. His handwritten script changes not just over the years but from page to page. The writings are often surrounded by surreal drawings: night scenes of empty cities, colored in multiple impressionistic shades with markers. The drawings are beautiful — cinematic descriptions, like a director’s notes for a film.
David Bowie is, organized by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, opened in March 2013 to record-shattering numbers. Due to overwhelming demand, Martin-Gropius-Bau has extended the run of the show through August. There was a line around the entire building the day I went, on a Tuesday afternoon, five months after the show opened. In many ways the exhibition seems unlikely, perhaps even pandering to a wider audience than any of these museums might otherwise receive, but the accumulation of all Bowie’s works, entombed in multimedia displays that surrounds the viewer, is compelling. The blockbuster retrospective of Bowie the pop music icon and style symbol makes a convincing argument for Bowie the artist.
David Bowie continues at Martin-Gropius-Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, Berlin) through August 24. The exhibition opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, on September 23. David Bowie Is, the documentary, opens in US theaters the same day.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!