The David Bowie Exhibition Finally Makes It to America
We talked to the curator who had to sift through David Bowie's hoarding.
Everyone has a favorite David Bowie. There's Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, who performed "Starman" on BBC’s "Top Of The Pops" while wearing a nut-hugging, patterned quilted suit. Aladdin Sane Bowie embraced Japanese fashion by sporting Kansai Yamamoto’s oversized, flared vinyl bodysuit with a maze-like pattern. Thin White Duke Bowie favored debonair tailored formal wear. He was a strung out clown in a puffy, silvery Pierrot costume for "Ashes To Ashes," and a pointed societal critic circa 1997's Earthling, courtesy of a distressed Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat. Even tanned 80s Bowie, in all his bleach-blond and pastel-suited glory, is charming in his own way.
These costumes and eras are all accounted for in David Bowie Is, a multimedia installation about the life of the enigmatic pop chameleon, which makes its American debut on September 23 at the Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art. So are remnants of his darker days—from a cocaine spoon to a cartoonish drawing of partner-in-debauchery Iggy Pop—and his artistic detritus: neatly handwritten lyrics, notes about the personas he was developing and even sketches for a never-made film set in the Diamond Dogs-era Hunger City.
Perhaps most impressive, David Bowie Is shows that his influence (and own inspirations) stretched far beyond just music and videos. The final part of the installation is the Periodic Table of Bowie, a giant color-coded wall hanging that replaces the usual chemical symbols with the art, theater, film and music luminaries that formed Bowie's cultural orbit.
This far-reaching influence underscores his revolutionary approach to fame. He knew that a pop star needed to have a unique angle and an interesting backstory ready to go at a moment's notice—the more outrageous, the better—in order to remain relevant; that's why he viewed his identity as a fluid thing. And he got away with his sometimes-outlandish antics and concepts because he was fearless about his metamorphoses. In fact, he did what everybody always wished they could do: reinvent themselves as something more interesting than their boring, normal personas.
We caught up with David Bowie Is co-curator Victoria Broackes to talk to her about the challenges of curating such a daunting exhibit, Bowie's unique fashion and cultural aesthetic, and why she thinks he kept the detritus of his life intact.
You got everything from the David Bowie Archive. Explain what that is.
Victoria Broackes: It has well over 75,000 objects in it, and it's properly archived. It was a great thrill when we first discovered that Bowie had it and it was also astonishingly complete. It wasn't just the things you'd hope to find—fabulous costumes and photographs—there's also things like his teenage sketches, his old photographs, his diaries, his notes, and so on.
Why do you think he kept so much of that stuff?
What I suspect is that it's a combination of things. There's a sort of concept that runs through Bowie—the sort of planned accident—which so much of his career seems to follow. And I suspect that he didn't plan to keep it; he just didn't throw it away. It wasn't kept as a proper archive until the last ten years or so, when he's been able to buy back [items]. I think they're receiving more things from fans and collectors all over the place, so they're adding to it all the time. Of course, it's one thing to be able to get back an Alexander McQueen costume—because that's something people would keep and would sell at auction—but the things that he hung onto or just didn't throw away? I don't know why he kept them.
He was "Hoarders" before "Hoarders" was even a thing, basically.
Yeah, and thank goodness for it. [Laughs.]
I imagine having this whole archive of 75,000 objects, and then trying to figure out where you even want to start and try to put together a narrative, must've been daunting.
It was hugely daunting. Yeah, it was. [Laughs] We started in the most practical fashion, with costume. We knew we needed about 60 costumes. Having done that, then we started to construct the narrative around it. From that point, it's a bit more back and forth. You start with what you've got, but then later on in the process you're going back and saying, "Hmm. Do you have anything more on Diamond Dogs? We're looking into this story and it would be really helpful to have that." And it's at that point that sometimes things turn up in the archive that you wouldn't have known to ask for, because you didn't know that they existed.
So how was the curation process for this different than other things that you've worked on, and why?
I suppose the fact that the majority of the objects were in one single collection and about one single person, kind of makes it easier in one sense and harder in another. We needed to create the context and show the inspirations—where those ideas come from—so a lot of our work was after selecting the objects, actually.
We had this very, very fine Kabuki collection in our own collections, [and so] we were able to actually show what Kabuki meant to Bowie, and what it looks like. With something like the "Man Who Sold the World" costume that he wore for "Saturday Night Live" in 1979, that design was based on a surrealist play by Tristan Tzara called "The Gas Heart." We had the original designs for the original play in our collections here, so that was really fabulous to be able to add that material. It's one thing to tell people, oh that comes from the Cabaret Voltaire, or that comes from this—but if you can actually show them, "This is where it came from, these are the designs," then that can be a really exciting story for people.
[Bowie is] an inspiration for lots of reasons, but I've met a lot of people working on this who say, "Oh, Bowie, he kind of provided me with an education," because he brought so many ideas into his performances and into his visual effects and into his lyrics. People who may not have gone directly to those influences, because Bowie brought them up, were saying, "Okay, I'll go and have a look at Nietzsche," or "I'll see that Stanley Kubrick film," or whatever it is. He was leading them into areas, some of which were quite kind of obscure or avant garde, rather intellectual.
He was a cultural tastemaker, a curatorial musician that was even such a thing.
Exactly, exactly. And you know, like so many things he seems to have been way ahead, almost—not just that he had a sixth sense for it, but I mean, like, nobody could possibly have imagined it. He was making—they weren't videos, because they weren't called videos then but—films with music before he had a hit single, in an era when there was no forum to show music videos. That's incredible to think of. And I think it's harder if you're younger than I am now and don't remember ever there being an era before MTV, say—you won't know how astonishing that was. That was something we wanted to communicate, how forward-looking he was.
Bowie documented everything and he's incredibly famous, but yet he's managed to really maintain a large amount of mystery and ambiguity to his art and film and fashion. How did you approach that conundrum when putting together this exhibit, and what did you learn personally about him as an artist that you might not have known? Were there any surprises?
I think that's absolutely spot-on. I think this ability to be both a cult performer who's also enormously popular, is a conundrum [that] you're not quite sure how he pulls that off. He did become massively popular in the 80s, and that made everything he did in the 70s massively popular, but it wasn't so much so at the time; there was definitely a feeling that he was more sort of niche, although there were an awful lot of people who were responding to that in an incredibly powerful and strong way.
There's so much you could say that's interesting about him, but the sheer hard work and energy and drive that he put in to what he's done, and to creating the kind of catalog that he's created, is what struck me, I suppose. He's never stopped working at it. And I think that's a very inspirational story to us all. First of all, he didn't give up, you know he had six years [of] not being successful. People thought he was pretty good, lots of people said, "Oh, this guy's really interesting," when they saw him, but he didn't break through. But that didn't put him off.
He also has these moments where he is trying something completely new—whether it's to make video with a paintbox technique, or scoring music, which he didn't know how to do and he taught himself how to do out of the encyclopedia of music. He doesn't say, "I can't do that, so I'll get someone else to do it," or "I won't do it." He says, "I can't do that, so I'll learn how to do it. And then I'll do it." And that breaking down barriers between what is perceived as the limits of being a pop musician is really fascinating. I think it relates to the fact he won't accept limits on how one should dress, or one's sexuality. He doesn't see limits; I think that's quite inspirational.
Anyone who says being a pop star is easy can look at Bowie and think no, it wasn't easy. He really worked at it, and he did a great job.
Annie Zaleski loves all of Bowie's phases. She's on Twitter - @anniezaleski.