David Bowie

The Bodies of (Saint) David Bowie

At some point after the news of David Bowie’s death,  across my social media streams came mention of sainthood for  David Bowie.  Dannielle Jenkins of Greaser Creatures while David Bowie was alive made these saint candles of Bowie (and other rock and film icons). 20160112_091621  It makes a certain sense, Sainthood claims not only that a particular person was of significance during the persons biological life but that said person can’t be summed up in their biological life and continues to live on and have effect in the world after biological death.

Jacques Derrida pointed out that when we are dealing with people we know through their body of work (artistic, philosophical, political, theological) there is as desire to connect up their historical and biological body with their body of work.  This is a difficult task.  While there is obvious coincidence of the biological body and the body of work under the same signature and name, each also has a life of its own.

One of the many things the philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about was this relation between our biological existence, our projections of our selves, and death.  For Derrida death lurks in us, in our communication of our selves, in our attempts to gain access to the other. There is a difference between death and life and yet they’re intermingled.

For Derrida death lingers in the different bodies of an artist or philosopher.  We often want to make these bodies coincide.  Yet, there is a separation. Death shows this separation.  What we have of a philosopher or artist after death is their body of work, this survives death, but their biological body, their self aside from the image projected as philosopher, artist, theologian isn’t accessible to us (and wasn’t accessible in life to a degree these names and bodies are already dead to us even during the biological life).

Sainthood approaches these aporias and conundrums of image and images and multiple bodies attached to a name, by adding a body, the body that transcends or survives death beyond a body of work.  This body continues to interact with the world after the biological body has ceased to live.  This can involve miraculous events attached to the name of the saint, including revelations and visions of the saint.

But we can’t make all the bodies attached to a name neatly coincide, neither can we dismiss the connections, the overlap, and the coincidence of the bodies received under one signature and name.

David Bowie as a stage name hides from us one body, that of David Jones.  And yet the way in which David Jones’ biological  body is also David Bowie’s body and the way in which that shared body was part of the body of work signed David Bowie, there is already in David Bowie a certain transcendence of death even before the death of the biological body.  This is analogous to the ways in which the body of a Saint already shows signs of transcendence in their biological bodies.  David Bowie isn’t only already marked by death, but also marked by the transcendent body David Bowie.

Now David Bowie’s body of work is complete.  We now hear and see David Bowie differently.  We may even begin to wrestle with his darker side, things that we may not want to attach to the body of work and yet are part of the biological life and body of David Jones/Bowie.

Yet it is perhaps important to remember that the bodies of David Bowie are different while they overlap.  We can’t either ignore the difference between David Jones and David Bowie, nor can we ignore their coincidence.

What we have now access too, and only had access to as fans and aficionados of David Bowie is the body of his work of art, the story of which was told in David Bowie Is exhibition, and which we now have  as its capstone in Blackstar.

And I think we also have that body that transcends death in that David Bowie’s body of work because of the nature of that body transcends death, and continues to give us messages and encounters with David Bowie beyond the grave.

Although we have the body of David Bowie complete, we won’t be able to comprehend these bodies.  There will always be those things beyond our grasp.  David Bowie may have a transcendent body that we will only now discover as we carry with us the artistic corpus of David Bowie. However, unlike what is claimed of the saint, we will never have (and never did have) accessible to us the body of David Jones.  David Jones is lost to us, all we ever had and will ever have is the bodies of David Bowie, biological, artistic, and transcendent.

David Bowie Is(n’t) Original

music-david-bowie-is-2At the top of the David Bowie Is exhibition the Yohji Yamomoto black record body suit presents the wild spectacle of David Bowie.  Then one moves to spend time in David Bowie’s early years, or really , the time before “David  Bowie”.  Here I got a sense of him as creative reclusive person, who through mime discovers his whole embodied self can be the basis of art as performance.  David Bowie emerges out of a varied set of influences and a traditional performance art.

(This isn’t a review of David Bowie Is exhibition, but a reflection on Bowie as an artist informed by the traveling exhibit, that had been at the Museum Contemporary Art, Chicago, and closed January 4, 2015.)

“David Bowie” in seeming contradiction to the spectacle isn’t about  authenticity, or originality.  David Bowie isn’t concerned about himself as the origin of his art.  From the start he rejects the Rocker”s refusal of stage make up.  The Rocker rejected make up as inauthentic.  David Bowie picks it up like the early rockers, but doesn’t attempt to make it “authentic” or representing an original author. Rather, make up becomes part of an abyssal persona without originality.  Make up is of course a key component to the Ziggy Stardust era along with wild costumes.  In Ziggy Stardust we, also find the various ways in which Bowie, as a performance artist, borrows from all sorts of sources and in collaboration. He collaborates with designers for the costumes , on  album art, and with studio musicians.  Originality, authenticity is questioned and turned upside down, even as “David Bowie” leaves behind very creative and odd artifacts .

(We should not forget that David Bowie is a staInside+David+Bowie+retrospective+features+rbPiViJ9bRTlge name and persona.  A friend once met David Bowie in a book shop and she approached him and asked are you David Bowie?  As he pulled down his shades, to reveal his eyes, he said to my friend, “Not today, love.”).

A portion of the David Bowie Is exhibit pauses in reflection upon Bowie’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live.  Behind the displayed costumes from that performance, in large lettering, a question is emblazoned: “David Bowie Revolutionary or Plagiarist?”  That question raises the dilemma of our understanding of authenticity and originality. bowie-2   It also comes at a point in the exhibition after which Bowie’s originality is troubled by having seen how David Bowie is collaborative, and draws not only inspiration but whole tropes (conceptual and visual) form various works and art forms.  Originality and authenticity is also troubled by Bowie’s system for conjuring of lyrics.  The exhibition has already challenged notions of authorial originality and intention.  So, one is prepared to see the question as a false dilemma.  Yet I also think it articulates how we fail to grasp tradition and how it functions.

As wild as David Bowie is, my experience of him , as presented in David Bowie Is, was as a traditional artist and not avant guarde.  Granted there is much in his performance that challenged convention and the status quo, but he is overtly and intentionally working with what he has received, and what others have abandoned and bringing what has been handed him  into a place of freshness and newness.   Part of what he receives as his career progress is “David Bowie” as a tradition to be mined. His own body of work becomes that which he receives and passes on to himself.

David Bowie fits within a tradition of entertainment, performance, art, and music.  David Bowie is also his own Tradition.

It perhaps is strange to think of Bowie as an unoriginal , inauthentic, and traditional performance artist who has challenged the status quo and created a unique persona and set of personas.  This is strange because we think that challenging the status quo occurs out of a place of authenticity and originality. We see tradition as only a conservative and static impulse.  Yet, if we see tradition as a dynamic moment of receptivity and creativity, then we can begin to look at the self-contradictory aspect of originality and authenticity:

Can any of us claim to be our own origin? can any of us be ourselves without dependence upon or reference to anything nor anyone else?  Don’t we all receive ourselves from others? Authenticity as originating only in the self and through independence consumes itself in an impossibility.

Bowie refuses the obsession with authenticity, embracing artifice and persona.  In so doing he puts himself in a place to receive a tradition of performance art that he then uses to create an astounding body of work.  In the body of work of “David Bowie” one doesn’t find the true authentic artist of an original body of work.  Rather one finds a body of work in conversation with a tradition of music and performance art (mime, fashion, theater, film, music), and a body of work that becomes its own tradition that is received and passed on.

David Bowie’s artistic body of work is overwhelming, shocking, wild, and creative, but it isn’t original.  The career and body of work received under the name “David Bowie” is possibly one of the best illustration of Jesus’ aphorism from the Gospel of Matthew: “The Scribes of the Kingdom are like one who brings out from the treasury what is both old and new.”  Such is what it means to be in a tradition, to have received a treasure out of which one brings both the old and the new.  Such is the body of work of David Bowie.

Granted David Bowie’s tradition isn’t a religious tradition but of performance, art, and music, and of “David Bowie” himself.  In this body of work we find what is both new and old, revolution and plagiarism. What we don’t find is an authentic original author, David Bowie. Such a singular and authentic origin doesn’t exist.  Or rather the origin and authenticity of David Bowie is found in others from whom he received what makes up “David Bowie.”