This week I took advantage of my stay in the frozen north of Holland to visit an unlikely location: the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Groninger Museum, running from 11 December 2015 to 13 March 2016.
A friend recommended David Bowie Is back in December. As a casual fans of his influence in pop culture, my husband and I had already been planning a trip for a few weeks before news of Bowie’s death hit the internet, but the evening after we heard the news, we finally decided to book tickets. A whole lot of other people had exactly the same impulse, naturally, causing ticket sales to increase eightfold. There were ±2600 people in front of me in the online queue, and though the website held out despite the increased traffic, it took almost two hours for my turn to arrive.
Eventually we had our tickets, the day (and pre-scheduled time) of our visit rolled around, and we boarded a train to Groningen. While we waited for our entry time to arrive so we could pick up our audio guide and headset, we had some tea and a bite to eat in the museum’s adjacent café, which was serving some Bowie-themed treats. This also gave me a moment to reflect on what might be coming up in the exhibition. Would I, as a casual fan, be lost in the wash of information and references? What would be it like to posthumously view an exhibit designed and opened before the artist’s death?
Whatever I had been expecting, the David Bowie Is exhibit was something of a surreal experience. Between the tasteful mood lighting, the psychedelic soundtrack being played over my headset, and the crowds of teary-eyed, head-bopping baby boomers pressed in around the video exhibits and singing along audibly to Bowie’s greatest hits, the atmosphere was more like that of a temple than a museum. This was a monument to David Bowie, and these people were on a pilgrimage. As someone who mainly knows Bowie’s music from the Guitar Hero franchise, I felt a bit like a stranger at a family funeral.
Were I not visiting after Bowie’s death, I imagine my experience would have been quite different. The Groninger Museum is a pretty psychedelic piece of architecture, and an homage to David Bowie fit in perfectly there.
The exhibition was interesting in its own right, featuring a staggering variety of material, from childhood drawings, to promotional material, costumes, and handwritten song lyrics. Also, my personal favourite, the staff and crystal ball of Jareth the Goblin King, from the film Labyrinth (1986). As Catherine Johnson (one of the V&A co-curators) points out, ‘None of this would have happened had [Bowie] not been such a hoarder’. The exhibition draws heavily on Bowie’s own personal collection. There was something for everyone, from hardcore fan to new initiate, and the headset, synchronised to the exhibits, provided audio clips and ambient sound appropriate to the period of Bowie’s life you happened to be walking through.
You can watch a trailer for the exhibition here, which gives you a partial feel for the atmosphere. In the end, I was most impressed by the sheer range of the projects and corners of the art world in which Bowie was involved. Was David Bowie just good at everything, as this Dutch review of the exhibition asks? Apparently yes.
The David Bowie Is exhibition is overwhelmingly positive about Bowie’s life, his art, and his contribution to popular culture. While it’s completely understandable that a museum honouring a (at the time) living man would gloss over some of the darker periods in Bowie’s career as potholes on the road to success, as a retrospective on his life it felt especially funereal. One does not speak ill of the dead. The strange sense of awe and spirituality that permeated the museum was emphasised by the use of the present tense throughout the exhibit. This was also intentional on the part of the curators. As co-curator Victoria Broackes explains, ‘it puts Bowie firmly into the present tense. It’s a statement; it’s also an unfinished sentence and underpins the approach of the exhibition. Everybody has his own Bowie story’. The exhibit’s phrasing takes on new meaning after Bowie’s passing, as his cultural legacy lives on without him. His Wikipedia page may now be written in the past tense, but at the Groninger Museum ‘David Bowie is all around us’.
I was particularly struck by the mundane things. Standing across from Bowie’s impressive range of costumes, for example, it’s hard not to notice that for all the charisma and the legend, he was such a short, slight man.
For me, one of the most impressive moments of the exhibition was actually only indirectly related to the collection on display. At the very end, in a corner of a large open space, where video of Bowie performing live is projected on every surface, and various costumes are alternately hidden and revealed by the lights, was a small screen. On it was displayed a rotating series of diverse, seemingly unrelated images. Some of these images were familiar, some of them not, but after everything you see, read, and hear in the David Bowie Is exhibition, they immediately demonstrate the lasting effect that Bowie has had on music, fashion, art, and popular culture in general. For all the exhibition’s memorabilia, special effects, and use of the present tense, that was what really made the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie real to me.
Rock on, Starman.