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David Bowie

David Bowie performing at Hallenstadion, Zurich, April 18, 1976. Photo: Keystone/Redux.

WHICH ONE OF HIS CHARACTERS do you like best? It’s hard to say. Ziggy is too easy—perhaps the Man Who Sold the World or the Thin White Duke? All of them are, of course, associated with specific lyrics and music, their own time and place: Berlin, London, LA, Bali (where he requested that his ashes be scattered). Taken as a group—now, sadly, a fixed set—these guises established the rhythm of David Bowie’s career, and his fans can remember where they were in their lives when each one emerged. We can all remember, too, when we were first entranced by his strange voice and the unlikely combination of sounds and words that somehow coalesced into a song. Bowie’s work became personal for me in the early 1970s, when my older sister Theresa introduced it to me. I instantly became a fan. This was years before she had her first straight family, or her second gay family. We were kids, and she had a small turntable; it was my first experience with stereo headphones. In retrospect, cycling through Bowie’s albums—Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), The Man Who Sold the World (1970)—through the hermetic split of left and right channels was a fitting starting point.

My first actual contact with David was like a shock of energy, fully charged with the magic of media, music, and glamour. It was as if he had somehow bilocated between our world and one of myth and didn’t fully exist in the same space as ordinary earthlings. Of course, this was all in my mind, and my reaction said much about the delusions of popular culture. Somehow this giant I’d been listening to and watching with such admiration since forever was in my studio in person. It was hard to reconcile fantasy with flesh. Later, I would notice that this was a common effect of David’s presence, sometimes with hilarious results. I remember seeing a Jasper Johns exhibition at MoMA with David, his wife Iman, and the artist Linda Post. David sauntered through the show, busily discussing the art and holding forth like we were in a bubble, while the focus of everyone around us shifted from the art to him. Finally, as we were leaving the museum, a group of women surrounded David and began touching him, as if in a spontaneous frenzy of admiration.

That was in the late ’90s, in the early stages of a friendship that lasted more than twenty years. At that time I was living in a hovel of a studio at 175 Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side. During David’s first visit, it took me at least an hour to calm down. As it turns out, behind the star power, he was almost a regular guy. Except that he was David Bowie, after all, who appeared to have different-colored eyes and who had that voice. I still remember fragments of our first conversations: We both agreed from experience that drugs are bad. While he was chain-smoking and sipping coffee, his thoughts ricocheted, much like his career, from music and film to books, art history, and comics, and back again. He was humble about his accomplishments (saying of his work, “One can pluck a few peppercorns from the shit”), and his humor was unforgettable, as was his deep laugh, often accompanied by a conspiratorial sideways grin. Friends asked me why he came to my studio, and at first I honestly didn’t know. It took me a while to understand that he loved art, from discussing how it was made to seeing how artists lived and worked. And it turned out that David wanted to interject some of my work into his lexicon. Much of what we did together became very public—videos can be found on the Internet—but some has never been seen.

All artists want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be artists. At least that’s what I came to believe about the many performers whom I discovered were closet painters. I always wanted to do an exhibition of their work and joked about it with David, even if the project is better left as a fantasy. David’s paintings and installations, which he knew would not be taken seriously, seemed different, though, as if for him the act of making them was part of a ritual engagement with the art world that extended to visiting studios and museums or reading about art history. Like his immersion in so many other forms, this fed his insatiable interest in the creative process, which in turn fed his projects in direct or indirect ways. He was private about his creative process, but I was able to glean more than a few insights over the years. David adored Jacqueline Humphries’s work, and once, while he and I and Corinne “Coco” Schwab (his longtime friend and personal assistant) were visiting her studio, I noticed that David was staring, deep in thought, as we were all basking in the glare of Humphries’s silver surfaces. I asked how he related to her compositions. His reply was immediate and revealing: “It’s very similar to the way I think about constructing music. Overlapping patterns and layers scraped away to reveal other patterns.” “Drawn or written out?” I asked. “I see them in my head,” he replied.

As an artist, I’ve always been fascinated with, and jealous of, pop music’s ability to take utterly banal material—chord progressions, submoronic lyrics—and imbue them with the ability to enrapture people. Sound directly enters the brain and evaporates, leaving only neuronal traces. Direct, simple, and free for the people, perhaps music is the greatest and most egalitarian art form. It’s almost a perfect model, and like many others, I have often wondered whether art could unlock the same secret.

Exactly when did poetry become subsumed by rock ’n’ roll? When was experimental film swallowed and digested by music videos? My generation of artists held a starry-eyed belief in the notion of crossing over; of leaving the elitism of the white cube for other media and venues: video, performance, audio, music. Previous generations of Brits had a similar notion—maybe the art world just hasn’t recognized their work as art yet? At one point after his heart attack, David went very quiet before reporting to me that he was reading approximately one book a day; he suggested I read one he loved that traced the fate of Oliver Cromwell’s head, which had been cut off his disinterred body shortly after burial and traveled here and there. I am grateful to have had these kinds of discussions with my friend David, and sometimes when he thought it had gotten too highbrow he would say with a smile, “It’s only rock ’n’ roll.”

In the future, will Bowie’s work be seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk? I like to think he was playing with that idea when, in 2003, he recorded Jonathan Richman’s song “Pablo Picasso,” who, the lyrics remind us, “was never called an asshole”—and whose lifelong prolificacy could only be matched by Bowie’s. When I met him, he was flirting with drum-and-bass, wearing Alexander McQueen clothes onstage—what I think of as the late period. He was in his forties and already living with a huge and storied history. I remember people thinking that he was old for a pop star, moving into the murky territory of adult entertainers. But set against the frozen fountain of youth of the so-called twenty-seven club, Bowie’s late period nevertheless generated an enormous range of material—appropriately, he ended up producing twenty-seven studio albums. He was a polarizing figure and did battle in the culture wars. He was so disturbed by the endless questioning of his sexuality that he eventually avoided interviews, preferring his work to speak for itself.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the psychologist Pierre Janet pointed to what he called dédoublement as the first evidence of two separate consciousnesses or personalities existing in one patient. From that point through the hysterical pop-cultural phenomenon of multiple personality disorder in the late ’80s, the fragmentation of the subject has had a negative association, psychoanalytically connected to trauma, abuse, and repressed memory.Yet people have always been attracted to it as entertainment (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Three Faces of Eve) and have pursued it through the latest media technologies, from television to Twitter.

Some have posited that this impulse to construct alternate identities is possibly a model for another kind of consciousness, free from Freudian archetypes. Once, while visiting the Rubin Museum of Art, David and I discussed Carl Jung’s Red Book in relation to Jung’s alternative view of channeling characters while making art. That’s a distinctly alternative view to Freud, and to my mind, Bowie’s collection of personas offers just such a liberating trajectory, while also providing an alternative to the American cliché of rugged individualism and fixed, “authentic” identity. I believe David relocated to the US in part as a reaction against the class system of the United Kingdom, and was surprised by the puritanism he found here. For him, self-invention was inherently futuristic, linked to the notion of a disposable self. His work implies seemingly endless possibilities at the same time that it deconstructs the mechanisms of self-presentation. A few props come out of the closet, he puts on a little greasepaint and turns on a light or two; in this way, David offers infinite alternatives, inviting us all to join in the play. He is one of the rare artists whose work truly functions as a refuge for outsiders, and through a mysterious, spontaneous combustion it gives birth to other artists, too.

Tony Oursler is an artist based in New York.