David Bowie

Much more than stardust

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„David Bowie is“ a smash hit. Almost a million visitors have experienced the glamourous star’s life and style in this extraordinary exhibition, which combines, in true pop star fashion, visuals and sounds.

  • Author: Mia Wenner
  • Photos: Brian Duffy
  • Video: DJ Marketing and Communication Ltd.

Costumes, Art and Paraphernalia

To his fans, he is God. Even non-fans consider him one of the most brillant entertainers of the 20th century. The exhibition „David Bowie is“, which has been seen by almost one million visitors already, demonstrates — in a very cool way — that the man is indeed flamboyant singer, trailblazing performer, sexsymbol and fashion icon. Well-known facts. But thankfully he is also a bit of a hoarder, a trait that enabled this wonderful show.

The 1947 born former Davie Jones opened his archive, which holds artefacts from five decades, to the curator of the world renowned Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He keeps costumes and notes, sketches for album covers and so on — a stunning collection of art work, memorabilia, personal things and, yes, bits and pieces (like the government letter confirming the official name change to David Bowie).

If not throughout fascinating, the exhibits are always original, sometimes outright hilarious. There are embroidered kimonos for his „Aladdin Sane“ tour and a brocate coat designed by Alexander McQueen for the „Earthling“ tour in 1997. There are meticulous sketches for stage lighting, childhood pictures, the keys to his Berlin apartment, hand-written and thoroughly edited song texts (Ziggy Stardust seemed to be his own worst critic!), and even a tissue, „circa 1974“, blotted with lipstick; yes, his own. Visitors learn what a fabulous painter Bowie is and how far ahead he was in time: He did short promotion films for his music when the term „video“ wasn’t even used yet.

Special about the exhibition, which opened in March 2013, is the pinpointed soundtrack for nearly every area of the exhibition. For instance, „Space Oddity“ enters your ear, via stereo headphones, when you walk towards a section dedicated to that time in Bowie’s career. The headphones come with a pocket receiver that provides geolocated audio-accompaniment. When the show opened in Chicago, a US critic raved: „Works like magic!“

Well, rather high-tech.

„People even sing out aloud with the songs“

After Paris, „David Bowie is“ will move to Australia and the Netherlands.

We talked to Geoffrey Marsh, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, about the first two years of this traveling success story.

When you entered David Bowie’s archive in 2011, what was your biggest concern? The archive was pretty big, around 77 000 items. More than enough for an exhibition. The key problem, though, was how can we create sound AND vision (Bowie Song – link). Museums spend millions on presenting objects, but when it comes to sound, they're terrible. Even though when it comes to 20th century art like pop art, sound is very critical.

How did you solve that? We basically came up with two systems: Headspeakers mixed with high quality surround sound. You see Bowie talking on the monitors, you hear him through the dual sound systems. It feels as if he is going around the exhibit with you. In the whole exhibition, there is nothing other than words or music by David Bowie; no talking to the person next to you, even.

Is that a good thing? Well, visitors often feel controlled in museums, that they should behave in a certain way. But here, people even sing aloud with the songs. It is so much more fun, and that is what pop culture is all about, isn't it?

How does Bowie himself like it? Officially, he has never been here. However, there are reports that he has looked at it. And that his team is really happy with it even though David's primary interest is tomorrow or today, not the past. A french newspaper wrote that he is so controlling about everything he does, that he actually wants to write his own history. But I rather think it is about disposing his past. He's very frustrated about old people — they're boring, wrapping themselves up in their past. He is always about designing the future. That is probably why he didn't want to work on the exhibition.

„Don't copy David Bowie, look inside yourself“

Too much „old stuff“? The exhibition isn't set chronologically. The idea is to feel as if you are inside Bowie’s brain, to understand how he works. Bowie is not only an entertainer, a musician, but also he has this extraordinary creative force even though he grew up in a grey post war period. He shows the skill of mixing up things and always coming out with new stuff. And he believes in everybody else. We try to pass his mantra on to the audience: Don't copy David Bowie, look inside yourself!

And people get that? Oh yes, they do. Admittedly, knowledge about Bowie differs, visitor to visitor. Lots of people only know his songs from shops, clubs, the airport. But even they feel there is more to it. They feel his creative force. Then others, the French, for instance, do not know much about his life, yet they see him as a style icon. People in Berlin used to love him because he was the first big star to stay in Berlin, ready to live this rough life on an island surrounded by communist Germany.

You have now spent four years on „Bowie“. Don’t you get tired of him? Not at all. He opens up a new world.