Marking Time: David Bowie – The Seventh Day

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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One week ago today, hundreds of thousands of people were listening to David Bowie’s new album, ★ Blackstar. As we enjoyed what seemed to be a new beginning, little did we know that we were engaging in Bowie’s ultimate artistic creation.

At some point during the 24 hours of last Sunday, David Bowie was on our minds and his music was in our ears, and he was fully alive to us, although he was already gone. The famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat had been performed on a grand scale.

David Bowie with cat

Bowie and cat | Credit: Unknown

In 1935, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised a scenario to illustrate a state called quantum superposition. A cat is placed in a locked box, and the cat’s life or death depend on the state of a radioactive atom – if it decays and emits radiation, then it will trigger the opening of a vial of poison which will kill the cat. If it does not decay, the cat will be alive. It is only when the box is opened that the observer can know which is the case. In 1957, the American physicist Hugh Everett was the first to theorise what he called a “relative state” formulation – more commonly known as the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. In the many-worlds interpretation, when the box is opened, that action splits into two worlds; one where the cat is alive, the other where the cat is dead.

The idea that the release of ★ and David Bowie’s subsequent, shocking, death have a connection to quantum physics is not such a reach as it might at first seem. The lithographs that were printed to accompany limited edition pressings of the album show Bowie in three poses; one with graphics from which the album cover art was derived (which strongly resemble spacetime curvature), the other two with a proton-proton chain and equation respectively, illustrating the fusion process in which stars convert hydrogen to helium, releasing energy and allowing them longevity as sources of heat and light. A black star, itself, is a theoretical alternative to a black hole – and may be a star which has reached end of its life, but with an infinite collapse time.

proton-proton chain lithograph of david bowie for the blackstar album

Proton-proton chain lithograph to accompany Blackstar

The themes of space travel and stars have been ever-present throughout Bowie’s work. In the two videos of ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’, Bowie personae appear through space and time, before creeping quietly into a wardrobe. A diminishing, or simply quantum-stepping into another world, Narnia-like? As he died privately while his fans rejoiced in ★, and we later discovered that his cremation had already taken place without friends or family present, the quantum superposition of Bowie was complete.

In 1999, interviewed on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman, David Bowie said, “Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here – the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

Audience reaction carries art into places beyond the boundaries of an individual artist, and the internet does indeed allow collaboration and creativity on a grand scale. The audience reaction to ★ created both mourning and renewal. Rather than requiring the suspension of disbelief, David Bowie always demanded the activation of belief in his art. It was in this way that Bowie created his own universe, and we joined him.

He wrote his name in the stars.

David Bowie's name on the album Blackstar