As the V&A's exultant exhibition opens in the Netherlands, curators say the display shows how Bowie was the master of his own myth
Since the end of its original run at the V&A, David Bowie Is has been on an illustrious tour of big cities from Toronto to Sao Paulo. Most recently, this summer, it broke advance ticket sale records at Melbourne’s filmic ACMI.
Now it has opened in Groningen, the northern Netherlands’ beautiful largest city, set in a custard-coloured block of a building amid a modernist complex which caused a stir by starkly contrasting the historic province architecture when it was constructed on a canal in 1994. “I have to say, it does look great here,” says Geoffrey Marsh, the Theatre and Performance Curator at the V&A, standing under a wide, multi-coloured staircase which leads down into the depths of the museum, offering a fish eye view of the water from its capsule windows.
Marsh had been hopeful Bowie would attend the exhibition when it launched in London almost three years ago, and its polymathic star casts a tenebrous figure over the show, partly by his absence. “He said right from the start that he would allow us into the archive to do what we wanted to do with the exhibition, but he would not be involved at any stage,” says co-curator Victoria Broackes.
“That is very curious because Bowie meticulously plans everything he does. It was quite a loop.
“He was interested to see what the museum would make of it. He likes to see what his audience and fans make of what he gives them.”
Marsh and Broackes were searching for other music archives when they heard that Bowie had what Broackes calls a “fantastic, unrivalled” pop retrospective ready to be devoured. “When we first went into it we discovered that it wasn’t just the great things you’d expect like fabulous costumes and amazing photographs by famous photographers, but it went right back to sketches, designs and things he was doing as a schoolboy,” she says.
“You can imagine, for us, to discover that one of, if not the most interesting musician in the world had this archive...we realised that we’d totally struck gold as we went through it.
“He didn’t pull it together until about 15 years ago. He had things that he’d kept scattered all around the world. Then he brought it back to one place and brought in an archivist.”
Photos dominate, but the curators started with the hundred or so costumes. Around 60 stand across the galleries, from the striped bodysuit of the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour to the punkish, Union Jack-style overcoat of the album art for 1997’s Earthling album.
“The thing in London was it opened mostly to people over 40. But after about six or eight weeks lots and lots of young people came,” says Marsh, who remembers one student he spoke to marching straight out of the show to try songwriting.
“Bowie makes it look so easy. He’s not so keen on the idea of people copying him and going around dying their hair. But he does make people think that they can do things.”
Ad Visser, a shock-haired VJ, presenter and artist who does a mean rendition of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, speaks in magician’s terms about his contemporary. “In the beginning, when he was not famous, I called him up and said ‘let’s have a talk, because I have heard your song, Space Oddity, I think it’s a fantastic song, I think you must have more interesting ideas’,” he recalls.
“He would do that with me because I was working for a big record company at the time. And it became more interesting because we had a like way of thinking.
“We talked about the process of how you create pop music as a kind of alchemy. The process of looking for gold, in the Middle Ages, was to repeat the things you’re doing.
“You know that every day is a new day and there are cosmic influences around you. They must one day create the gold.
“Playing a song every day, at least for Bowie, changed it to gold. The process of creating is what you can see here – and not only that, you can feel it.”
The most striking thing is Bowie’s own keen curation of his creativity – cutting up and realigning the scribbled lyrics to Blackout, say, or embedding ostensibly casual conversations with his designers into album notes. Broackes wonders how, in 1964, Bowie could have foreseen so certainly the interest in his early artistic sketches, while Marsh underlines the vision of the young artist, turning down a place at grammar school in Kent and creating “the archive of a character.”
© The David Bowie Archive and (under license from Chris Duffy) Duffy Archive Limited
“That's what's really strange about it,” he suggests. “It’s an archive created as if he was, at a very young age, a fantasy figure.
“A curious thing we discovered is that Bowie doesn’t exist. The real person is David Jones. When you go to his office the letters are written to David Jones. It’s just really strange seeing a living person creating an archive about fiction.
© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012
“By the age of five or six he was living in the middle-class suburbs, which of course doesn’t quite fit the image he wants to give of himself.
“His first job was in Bond Street working for an advertising agency after he left school when he was 16. It’s very funny because Andy Warhol did exactly the same thing.
© John Robert Rowlands
“When you read Bowie’s account of it he says it was a completely wasted year and all that sort of thing. But it was the early ‘60s, the decade after the Korean War, and there were all these books coming out about consumerism.
“There was the idea of scientific advertising and shaping people’s opinions. I’m sure that’s where he picked up the idea to do what he did, like Warhol.”
© V&A Images
Bowie’s next album, Blackstar, will be released on his 69th birthday next month. It has already produced a ten-minute film for the song of the same name. Marsh says the video, with its themes of sexuality and gender, will be left unabsorbed in parts of the world because of the “hot buttons” it touches.
He believes younger superstars could learn a lot from Bowie’s trajectory, mentioning his acting training, under the guidance of dancer Lindsay Kemp during the late 1960s, as an example of his devotion to performance.
© Film stills: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd. Photo: V&A Images
“There are masses of books about Bowie but very, very few talk about this, and I think it’s fundamental.
“You know, to Lady Gaga acting is about putting on funny clothes. But Bowie knows how to act.
© The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image: V&A Images
“Very few other performers have that sort of ability. He’s unusual in terms of his background.
“He’s also got this ability to cut himself off from people he’s worked with. His loyalty is to whatever he’s doing next. Some people say that’s cold but I think it’s about doing what you want to do.
© David Bowie / The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image: V&A Images
“I know this sounds like a funny thing to say about someone who’s obviously incredibly rich but, genuinely, I don’t think he’s that interested in money.
“I think he likes having money but I don’t think it’s ever been a significant driver, the be-all-and-end-all."
© V&A Images
Visser says Bowie is “a little bit obsessive”, which seems a reasonable observation given that the archive contains 75,000 artefacts – 15,000 more than the museum collection where some of it will spend the next three months.
“I’d seen the exhibition in London – I was there at the opening – but when I see it here I think it’s perfect,” he feels.
“We are from the Bowie generation but it still works for younger people. The building and the exhibition and the way of thinking of Bowie are perfectly together here. He knows exactly how to create a myth of himself.”
- David Bowie Is runs at the Groninger Museum until March 13 2016. London Southend Airport is the only UK airport that flies to Groningen, flights are available at flybe.com with prices starting at £29.99 per person. Packages including exhibition entry, flights, accommodation and special events also available, find out more and book online at davidbowieingroningen.com. Follow the Groninger Museum on Twitter @groningermuseum and Facebook and find out more about Groningen at toerisme.groningen.nl. Use the hashtag #DavidBowieIs.
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