The ‘David Bowie Is’ touring exhibition is heading to its seemingly final stop at the Groninger Museum, Groningen in the Netherlands. I was fortunate enough to see the exhibition in its first week of opening at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. Since then it has travelled to Sao Paulo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris and Melbourne, Australia.
The retrospective looks back through Bowie’s fifty year career using over 300 objects, including handwritten lyrics, costumes, photography, set designs and artwork from the David Bowie Archive. The theme of the exhibition is to openly ask the questions, who is David Bowie? and what is David Bowie? He is often referred to as a chameleon, so he is extremely difficult to define and even after visiting the exhibition you may still struggle to answer.
David Bowie is a creative genius, a true artist in every sense of the word, he is a songwriter, musician, performer, painter and actor. However, despite his long career he still remains a mystery. On the 8th January 2013, Bowie shocked fans when he announced the release of ‘The Next Day’ his first album in ten years. Many had believed that he had either retired or was in ill health. The album went straight to number 1 and the ‘David Bowie is’ became the most successful exhibition in the V&A’s history. See below for the video of his comeback single ‘Where Are We Now?’.
The first object on display is Kansai Yamamoto’s iconic Aladdin Sane era costume, resembling a rather large vinyl record. We are then transported back to the early 1960’s with sketches and photographs of a young Davie Jones in his early unsuccessful bands ‘The Kon-Rads’ and ‘The Delta Lemons’. In 1966 he adopted the name David Bowie to avoid confusion with ‘The Monkees’ singer. A letter to Bowie’s manager about this is featured in the exhibition. On the wall hangs ‘The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’ album which was released the same day as Bowie’s 1967 debut album. Needless to say the album wasn’t a success, with songs more along the lines of ‘The Laughing Gnome’ than ‘Starman’.
We then move on to an area dedicated to a more familiar Bowie, featuring handwritten lyrics, artwork and video footage of his first hit ‘Space Oddity’ becoming popular when used during the 1969 moon landings. Just a few steps forward and we are faced with Freddie Buretti’s iconic costume worn on the legendary Top Of The Pops performance of ‘Starman’ and on the 1972 Ziggy Stardust Tour. From this moment on every wall and surface is filled with lyrics to classic songs such as ‘Rebel Rebel’, “Heroes”, ‘Five Years’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack coat for 1997’s Earthling album stands beside costumes worn on Saturday Night Live in 1979 and suits from the Serious Moonlight tour. There are preparatory sketches for the characters that feature on the 1. Outside album and most excitingly a storyboard for an unmade Diamond Dogs film.
After killing of the character Of Ziggy Stardust in July 1973, he appeared one last time with his band The Spiders From Mars on the 1980 Floor Show which to this day has only ever been broadcast in the US. However, all the costumes that were worn in the show are in the exhibition under the censored in America section, as the costume worn for ‘The Jean Genie’ featured a hand sewn onto Bowie’s crotch which had to be removed for the performance. Also featured in this section is the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ where Bowie appears dressed as three female backing singers, before ripping off the wigs and smearing his lipstick across his face.
The main room of the exhibition is devoted to Bowie on stage, with ceiling-high screens showing classic and rare performance footage surrounded by costumes worn on the tours. On entering this room, we are greeted by the powder blue suit from the 1973 ‘Life On Mars?’ video and the pierrot outfit from the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video and ‘Scary Monsters’ album cover. Directly, below it is the storyboard for the iconic video. Most surprisingly was the puppet used in the ‘Where Are We Now?’ video.
In this large room, there is a section devoted to Bowie’s time in Berlin, the walls are decorated with paintings and album covers from the era, including instruments used in the recording of the ‘Low’ and “Heroes” albums. One of the final rooms is dedicated to Bowie on film, most notably in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ in 1976 and ‘Labyrinth’ but also in the broadway production of ‘The Elephant Man’ in 1980.
This excellent exhibition provides a fascinating insight into to the life and creative processes of one of the most important and influential artists of all time.