I never thought I’d ever hold a ticket to see David Bowie.
Then again, this would be as close as I’d get from here on. My Japanese friends and I were in line to see DAVID BOWIE is, an exhibit curated by The Victoria and Albert Museum. It has been showcased all over the world — Toronto, Berlin, Melbourne. It opened at Warehouse Terrada Tokyo — its latest stop — on what would have been David Bowie’s birthday.
Though it would have been great if the exhibit swung by Singapore or Manila, Tokyo makes perfect sense as the only stop in Asia. Bowie’s strange fascination with Japan spans his career: studying Kabuki-influenced miming in the mid-1960’s, long before 'Space Oddity' took Britain by storm; Kansai Yamamoto’s space-age kimonos which Bowie took on the Ziggy Stardust tour; and the tortured, borderline hysterical spoken word segment opening Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, among other things.
Perhaps one of Bowie's most memorable appearances is starring in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence along with superstars Takeshi Kitano and Ryuichi Sakamoto, directed by the auteur Nagisa Oshima, a poetic tragedy of homoerotic desire and liberation in a decrepit World War II camp. I’ve never seen someone eat flowers with such grace as Bowie does.
My friend and I spent over thirty minutes in line, so I took my time to carefully apply gold eyeliner on her face. I was in my most Bowie-esque shirt, with a Diamond Dogs pin I had just bought from a used CD store the night before.
What we know as David Bowie isn’t just the man himself; it’s how his millions of fans reinterpreted and succeeded in what he did, from Madonna to St. Vincent. At the height of his popularity as Ziggy Stardust, the crowd would be a mirror, reflecting dozens of Bowies in the crowd back to the man himself.
We passed by a row of bouquets laid down at the foot of a freedom wall, with short transmissions to Bowie in English and Japanese. There was a lot written already considering it was the third day of the exhibit, which would be running until early April. My friend and I bowed our heads and paid our respects.
Beside us was an elderly couple, arm in arm. I was honestly surprised by how old many of the people in line were. These are the slinky vagabonds and rock n’ rollers who have been there to see Bowie’s career progress. I’ve had it almost all in retrospect, discovering Bowie when I was in high school around six years ago. It was only after his death, rediscovering his albums, did I really begin to get a sense of how far and wide his career spanned.
Finally, we made it to the exhibit and were handed headphones. We turned around a corner to see Yamamoto’s iconic Space Samurai, a jet black samurai silhouette whose symmetry was lined in white. And on we went.
The exhibit had a staggering array of Bowie artifacts and arcana — from the ice blue suit from the 'Life on Mars' music video to a piece of crumpled tissue paper on a pedestal, bearing the mark of his lipstick.
Here were the synthesizers he used on the Berlin Trilogy, along with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. There were notes ripped straight out of Bowie’s songwriting pads: the lines crossed out of 'Life on Mars', the strips of cut-up lyrics he used to write part of Diamond Dogs, and other sheets of paper certainly once powdered with cocaine, all in Bowie’s round print, with occasionally i’s occasionally dotted with full circles.
There was the neon alligator suit he wore when he played Starman on “Top of the Pops”, where many people across Britain got a taste of his flaming red hair and norm-defying performances. There was his grand silk kimono, with Kanji characters that phonetically read “David Bowie”, but meant something along the lines of “a man who spits out fiery words” in Japanese; the sleek silhouette of the Thin White Duke; the suit he wore as Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth; the often-imitated blue polka-dotted sweater of his Cracked Actor tour, and so much more.
I could have stared at the embroidery of the suit he wore for his Glastonbury performance in 2000 — my favorite Bowie performance of the 90’s onward — for ages. In the exhibition hall were the outfits I’ve seen in thousands of photos, but the details in the stitches are far more breathtaking in real life. He’s also shorter than I thought.
There was a corner of the exhibit with footage of Bowie’s concert in 1987 Berlin, two years before the wall was torn down. The stage was right beside the Berlin Wall, and the speakers were pointed east. On the other side was citizen footage, illegally shot, of the crowd that gathered to hear him. Bowie sang of lovers kissing in the shadow of the wall. After the concert, a riot ensued, with the police arresting Bowie fans who refused to disperse.
Hence, after Bowie’s death, the German Foreign Office (@GermanyDiplo) tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
The exhibit was really quite paradise, and my friend and I left with the kind of buzz we get from seeing a great show. The exhibit was mostly until Bowie’s work in the 80’s, but really, you could fill an entire museum with Bowie and still not come close to being comprehensive.
After his death, I’ve gone deep into the black hole of the Bowieverse with all the other fans in mourning. In the past year, I’ve seen Bowie tributes at the San Francisco Pride Parade, saw 3/4ths of the Eraserheads play an all-Bowie set (aside from the surprise El Bimbo at the end), and met a Japanese friend who calls him “Bowie-sama”, a deity.
That’s just the way he lives on. David Bowie might as well be the world.