Starting tomorrow, an exhibition of David Bowie's private artifacts will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum. It's the show's final stop on a 12-city, five-year tour of the world. Nearly two million people have seen the costumes, writings, recordings, and photographs that make up David Bowie is, and for good reason. It's an incredibly detailed portrait of one of the century's most important artists, and was organized with Bowie's blessing and approval.
While it's bittersweet to walk the museum's halls surrounded by a man who was with us until so recently, the sheer scale of Bowie's talents forces sadness to give way to amazement. The man did it all—besides singing and songwriting, Bowie was a painter, costume designer, playwright, and prolific mime.
That last one was news to me—his history as a mime isn't a secret, but it's not the most celebrated part of his career, either. It was one of Bowie's earliest artistic pursuits. Through the '60s he studied with famed performance artist Lindsay Kemp, opened for T. Rex with a one-man mime routine depicting China’s invasion of Tibet, and even landed a spot on television with the unsettling, prophetic piece "The Mask." It also confirms my theory that mimes are creepy no matter who's behind the makeup.
As with most things, Bowie folded his mimery into other art forms, notably his stage performance during the Ziggy Stardust days. He also showed his mime side when visiting Andy Warhol's Factory in the early '70s. The interaction was extremely uncomfortable—there was a mutual respect there, but neither artist liked each other very much. That much is apparent from Bowie's evident unease on camera: the claustrophobia is less striking in the embedded version below, but there's no background music in the museum's full 14-minute clip, leaving Bowie and Warhol's uncomfortable banter intact.
Bowie continued to incorporate elements of his mime past throughout his career. He appears as Pierrot the Clown in 1980's "Ashes to Ashes" video, and used onstage antics like these regularly during the Ziggy Stardust days:
So while the days of "The Mask" were behind him by the time Bowie took off in the '70s, he used its lessons for the duration of his career—and smartly decided to focus on songwriting. In 1999, during a tribute to BBC radio legend John Peel, Bowie remembered that early T. Rex tour and Peel's reaction: "You decided that the problem was that I was doing mime. You didn't like mime. And until I came here to America, I never realized that you were right. Nobody in the world likes mime. Thanks for the advice about the songs. I'm glad I stayed with the songwriting."
Us too. Bowie might have been a decent mime, but he was an iconic rock star. David Bowie is will be at the Brooklyn Museum until July 15.