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Dark Matter: The Elemental Cover Designs for David Bowie's ★

08/01/2016 17:02 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 10:12 GMT

It's a testament to the visual language developed for Bowie's ★ album graphics by Barnbrook Studios that such an elemental, and seemingly literal, 'black star' image has the power to communicate so much whilst visually depicting comparatively little.

Elemental physics is concerned with the essence of things, focussing upon the very small to help formulate a much bigger cosmological picture. Central to our scientific and cultural landscape of space - a domain closely associated with Bowie's persona as a 'starman' and alien/outsider - is the importance of geometric forms.

Placing a pure geometric star shape at the centre of the ★ graphics is an elegant way to edit out distracting content whilst simultaneously focussing upon a bold universal symbol. In an image-saturated culture, there is no need for a portrait of Bowie to recognise this as a Bowie album.

The star shape hints at notions of 'stardom', glam rock, and the occult 'messiah'-like qualities of rock stars, but more than all of these it evokes outer space. Space is about darkness, the unknown, the infinite. Space, symbolically and conceptually, resists clear or precise definition because the potential for wonder and fear is boundless. Space is about the sublime.

The album covers for ★ play with this notion of a darkly romantic and suggestive symbol. The vinyl cover celebrates the physical form of the record it contains whilst toying with more otherworldly, Bowie-esque, associations. The hole depicted in its centre is surrounded by a larger circle (where the label goes) and both of these geometric shapes are contained within the overlaid points of the star, which displays the near concentric lines created by the grooves of the record that both radiate out and spiral in.

Seeing the vinyl album cover it's tempting to make associations with the Big Bang theory and ideas of an expanding/contracting universe; the Voyager Golden Records from 1977 - which were blasted into space by NASA loaded with sounds and imagery from Earth, selected by Carl Sagan, should any extra-terrestrial lifeform know how to play them; and with the vinyl LP Thomas Jerome Newton (as played by Bowie) records for his alien wife in the film version of The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). But none of these allusions, or any others that come to mind, are definitive or even necessarily intended.

Instead, the abstract typography formulated from the star shape and evolved into a hieroglyphic that 'reads' Bowie seems to articulate what these designs are about: visual and creative dialogue. The Bowie hieroglyph is situated below the star graphic on the vinyl cover and similarly accompanies the inverted black and white cover of the CD album, where the star is pure white on a pure black background; it also punctuates the gridded model of space-time (reminiscent of Peter Saville's cover design for Joy Division's classic Unknown Pleasures album from 1979) that visualises the digital download.

Constructed from elements of the Unicode 'BLACK STAR' character, the hieroglyphs and bold symbol of ★ are capable of adaptation, variation and interpretation across media. This is a visual language for an articulate and interactive audience to engage with and explore. The graphics are part of the start of a new Bowie project, which no doubt draws meaningfully upon the past, but where the focus is upon dialogue and exchange with his audience rather than the summation or conclusion of just one idea.

Barnbrook Studios's ★ designs aren't about offering distinct meanings. There is no code to be broken or subtext to 'read' that will reveal a hidden message (although it is enjoyable to play with the potential of this idea). Instead, these designs are about setting a tone.

The blackstar graphics suggest enormous depth through elemental images that resonate with dark mysticism, eternal and archetypal themes and imagery, and the rich and infinite possibilities of space. As science fiction from the 20th century increasingly blurs with science fact in the 21st, Bowie's ★ hints at both utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares.

These concepts are evident in the luscious and indulgent music video Johan Renck directed for the ★ single; the mythological and ritualistic imagery of The Last Panthers (2015) title sequence, which is centred around an edit of the haunting ★ single; the impending Lazarus stage production based upon The Man Who Fell To Earth; and, not least, the creative tone of the ★ album itself, set by the lead single as part of a multi-platform integrated set of projects and ideas circulating around Bowie and his collaborative instincts.

In astrological terms, the heart of a black star apparently consists of a strange state of space-time that borders on the infinite. It's captivating, elemental and essentially unknowable - that sounds like Bowie to me, and it is strikingly communicated by the ★ graphics.