Exhibition ‘David Bowie is’

‘David Bowie is’ in the words of someone else

David Bowie Is is a touring exhibition/retrospective of David Bowie’s career, which is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until August 11th, 2013.

As I find that there are several aspects of the exhibition that can significantly add to the discussions on how to effectively address music themes in museums, I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to visit it.

In my judgment, the title David Bowie Is is brilliant, as it introduces multiple possibilities for the completion of the sentence. What is more, it clearly matches Bowie’s most known rationales: ‘I like the idea that we’re vehicles for other people to interpret or use as they will’. In fact, the title allows countless striking ways to complete the first part of the sentence, thus building up a touching collection of sentences that are spread throughout the entire exhibition, such as: ‘David Bowie is ahead of himself’, ‘David Bowie is not yet’, ‘David Bowie is plagiarism or revolution’, ‘David Bowie is an intervention’, ‘David Bowie is looking for a future that will never come to pass’. It is extremely difficult not to agree, I believe, not only because most of the visitors are actually fans of David Bowie, but also because the collection of sentences seems to be particularly effective in emotionally enhancing the figure of David Bowie to visitors. Furthermore, I am totally convinced that visitors that were not actually fans of David Bowie at the beginning of their visit ended up becoming fans because there was no other possibility, at this point, than to be fully immersed in Bowie’s music, played with outstanding quality in our personal headphones. In fact, as I have always firmly believed and now have finally had the opportunity to witness, soundtracks for museum exhibitions can be particularly powerful ways for visitors to engage with the exhibitions.

The sentence David Bowie Is also has the singular ability to creatively adapt to the several products of merchandising, thus shaping a sentence for a rubber, ‘David Bowie is correcting the situation’, for the spine of the catalogue, ‘David Bowie is inside’, and for pencils, ‘David Bowie is graphically yours’ and ‘David Bowie is in the words of someone else’. David Bowie Is is thus versatile enough to be taken both seriously and playfully and so address or even fulfil the several responsibilities and attributes of the contemporary museum.

Several ways of completing the original sentence are particularly strong and emotionally compelling, thus suggesting that the exhibition discourse might be dominated by the goal of giving David Bowie the attributes of a hero. Although it might be tempting from the perspective of cultural analysis to criticise this course of action for its ‘ideological’ stance, I do not find it extremely problematic when considering the whole of this initiative. As a matter of fact, although a number of the ways of completing the original sentence ascribe power to David Bowie, several others also consider the audience or, at least, invoke their relationship with Bowie’s work. The sentence ‘David Bowie is in the words of someone else’ particularly caught my attention, not only because it reflects the reaching out of Bowie’s work but also because it led me to deeply ponder to what extent we are connected with and determined by each other.

The exhibition gives an account of a multifaceted David Bowie by simultaneously undertaking discourses of the musician, the performer and the designer by means of a historic rationale in which Bowie ends up being clearly represented as a cultural revolutionary, an icon of his time. It is based on the collection of the David Bowie archive from which 300 objects are exhibited, including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, fashion, photographs, film, music videos, set designs and Bowie’s own instruments. Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, curators of the V&A, worked on its narrative for two years, which was then revised by the archivist of the collection. Nevertheless, the narrative was considered by the curators to be just one of the many possible, as a sentence placed at the very end demonstrates: ‘This exhibition has told part of the story but the rest lies with us, the audience, and the connection we make to the man and the myth’.

The exhibition builds to its stunningly climactic finale. Two immense screens – something like 6 by 6 meters, at right angles to each other – play videos of Bowies’ concerts. The images are impressive and the sequence of videos has plenty of powerful moments, such as when the different screens play an old and a recent version of a particular song at the same time. These musical moments are then followed by moments of silence in which the projection of images is stopped and the screens become transparent and reveal, behind, a metallic structure made of several squares, each exhibiting a plastic mannequin wearing one of Bowie’s costumes. Lights flashing on and off with a random rhythm produce an additional effect. This moment of silence is particularly significant, not only for visitors to remember that they are within a museum – otherwise the display would mainly resemble a concert – but most of all because it invites us to a reflection, a tribute, a shiver. Visitors do not depart but rather remain: David Bowie Is thrilled me, thrilled us, a lot. Although one can say that, in a sense, David Bowie is exploited as an object to be adored, the actual effect is that the visitors find the exhibition extraordinarily thrilling. Accordingly, I would like to put the question: is it not one of the fundamental requirements of the contemporary museum to establish emotional relationships with its visitors? At a certain point, it is through feelings and emotions that we can certify that we are alive. In the 17th century, Descartes stated ‘I think; therefore I am!’, but if it were today, he would certainly have said ‘I am thrilled; therefore I am!’. To think, by itself, is too flat for today’s emotionally connecting world.

However, what brought me to the point of ecstasy (and I really do have to put it that way, because it was exactly the way that I felt at a certain moment) was that David Bowie Is addresses and solves for the first time, at least for the first time in such a remarkable way, the problem that has been inhibiting the staging of exhibitions on immaterial culture for so long: that of displaying musical sound; and it does so not only with a single piece of musical sound, but with the simultaneous exhibition of several pieces of musical sound without resulting in cacophony. In fact, it is particularly in this sense that I found David Bowie Is a watershed in museum practice.

More specifically, the visitors to the exhibition are given an audio-guide with a Bluetooth system that automatically releases a song as the visitor approaches a specific display. The song thus takes the form of a sonic object which visitors can keep listening to through to the end or give up on by moving on in another direction as we usually do with physical objects. Through both the technical and financial support of Sennheiser, the exhibition David Bowie Is turns musical sound into a sonic object carving it into the space, not only as an individual object – as a few exhibitions have already been doing, for instance, the British Music Experience in London, the Beatles Story or the National Museum of Liverpool – but first and foremost as an sonic object being played among many others but without its sonic shape and individuality being lost. In addition to all of this, the sound quality was absolutely remarkable.

To conclude, besides the several discussions that one might want to start with regard to the most ethical way of representing David Bowie, I felt honoured to have had the opportunity to be part of the historical moment when the sonic object became possible within a museum setting. Beyond that, and in the light of how I observed the public reacting to the exhibition, I had the chance to witness the proof that it is actually possible to address music themes in museums and that this is worth doing. David Bowie Is is in my heart.

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