On The Road With “David Bowie Is”
Multi-dimensional artist/mega pop star, with a career spanning 50-plus years, David Bowie continues to ch . . . ch . . . change. This latest version, without Bowie in the driver’s seat, is the traveling exhibition created by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. David Bowie Is brings together music, writings, objects, videos and costumes from Bowie’s massive personal archive. After sold-out shows in London, Berlin, Toronto, Sao Paolo, Chicago, and Paris, the exhibition is heading next to Melbourne. And I will be there — again.
Call me weird, but I’ve been following the David Bowie Is exhibition to each city. Having seen it many times now, I anticipate each new location, each new venue and each new experience. Not quite a rock concert, but close enough. A middle-aged wanna-be groupie following an aging mega pop star who no longer performs . . . in a museum exhibition. Am I reliving my rock and roll years, or is it just an excuse to see the world? Ch-ch-Changes. Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers!
I first discovered Bowie during the Station to Station and Thin White Duke era. Live music was so important back then. I’d drop everything, including missing family trips and skipping school, just to catch his concerts when I could. Bowie was “out there,” but I loved the drama and the creative forces behind his music, his performances and his look. Bowie’s songs became the soundtrack of my life at that point — “turn to face the strange” streaming into my head in any stressful hiccup. I even made a Bowie “altar” in my dorm room, having grabbed the film poster of The Man Who Fell to Earth from the theater where I worked.
Then life happened. Marriage, kids, home in the ‘burbs and steady work. I barely kept up with music, let alone Bowie’s, which became buried in the background, only coming out occasionally sublimely. “Oh you Pretty Things. Don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas Insane,” I’d find myself singing. Raising kids filled those years, and it went by in a flash.
Created by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the title, David Bowie Is, seems at first so open-ended. Is what? But then after seeing the exhibit, and seeing all areas that Bowie has touched as an artist, it makes sense. Bowie is a pop star, an artist, a writer, an actor and a performer. He is anything he sets his mind to in the creative world, even adding playwright, with a new play opening in New York later this year. On top of that, his appeal is worldwide, ageless, multicultural, multi-dimensional, and he still sells out shows, albeit this time, at museums.
The David Bowie Is traveling exhibit is a full-spectrum experience, with interlinking galleries, displaying the performer’s costumes, album artwork, writings, memorabilia and handwritten lyrics, along with film and videos from his personal archives. Each visitor receives an individual “proximity” headset, which switches to specific Bowie songs as you move around the exhibit. Cruising through the galleries, you relive Bowie as Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to name a few.
Entering the exhibition, headphones on loud, instantly the sensation and beat of the music creates another world, with the song “Golden Years,” starting it off. “Don’t let me hear, life’s taking you nowhere,” Bowie sings in my headphones. “Nothing’s going to touch you in these golden years.”
Live music was important back then, much more than it is now in the post-MTV era. The David Bowie Is exhibition nails this in the “showroom” at the end of the exhibition, recreating the experience of a concert. Entering the room, you immediately become immersed in an incredible video concert performance.
No longer needing the headphones as music blasts from the surround sound speakers, you sit on the lounges and seats in the center, or circle around the room to watch Bowie concert footage on the floor-to-ceiling video panels on all four walls, while towering speakers blast out the accompanying audio. No matter if you’ve never heard the radio hit “The Jean Genie” or heard it too many times to count, the rare 1973 live version here from London’s Top of the Pops is absolutely mesmerizing, and is reason to sit down and take it all in.
At the Berlin David Bowie Is exhibit, the video performance room included footage from his iconic 1987 Berlin concert. His Berlin Trilogy albums were recorded here in the shadow of the Berlin Wall: Low, Lodger and the magnificent Heroes. In the concert footage, Bowie sings, “We can be heroes, just for one day,” and the cameras pan to the audience, standing and chanting along, soldiers, teenagers, adults, many with tears in their eyes. Watching this video performance, I then looked around the room of the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in modern-day Berlin, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visitors there were singing along, some also with tears in their eyes. A performance within a performance. Incredible.
I took my sons to this Berlin exhibition and though they weren’t Bowie fans at the time, they came out impressed with how much he’s influenced even in the music they listen to today. “He’s so cool,” my youngest son exclaimed. To my generation, he was smart and he was hip. He introduced us to books, literature and to other musicians and performers. It wasn’t just about the music at that time, it was the album artwork, the photographs, the clothes and the performance. And yes — he was cool.
Victoria Brouckes, co-curator of the David Bowie Is exhibition said in a recent interview that while the show remains primarily the same at each stop, each venue has the ability to add material specific to Bowie in that city and country, and that is what keeps me coming back.
In Berlin, David Bowie Is was serious, emblematic, steeped with history of Bowie and national history and pride combined, coming together in a “Berlin Room.” Chicago’s David Bowie Is was typically American over-the-top, with an all-star opening night gala, a few visitors in Ziggy Stardust outfits and the Mayor of Chicago pronouncing David Bowie Day. The Paris David Bowie Is, at the new Philharmonie de Paris on the city outskirts was designed by famed architect Jean Nouvel — an astonishing, undulating, metal roofed mass of a building. It was here the one millionth visitor came and was presented with a David Bowie inscribed David Bowie Is book.
So now it’s on to Melbourne, and then to Amsterdam. Opening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (July 16 — November 1), I’m anticipating the Australian David Bowie Is will have film footage of Bowie’s first stadium tour in Australia in 1978, as well as displays and videos from two of his most famous videos, both shot in Australia: “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl,” displaying images of the plight of the indigenous Australians. Like a concert: the same songs, but each show completely different. And I can’t wait.
All I know is that I will be in Melbourne shortly. “Where are we now? The moment you know.You know, you know . . .”
Kitzi Tanner is a California native, and when not chasing Bowie around the world, she finds excitement in adventures more locally. By day she’s a consultant with startup techs, and by night she’s a fledgling writer, hoping one day to segue into a full-time adventurer.