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Bowie on display

INTERVIEW: Next week Bowie-mania in Berlin comes to a head with the opening of mammoth exhibition "David Bowie Is..." at Martin-Gropius-Bau on May 20. What can you expect to see? Curator Victoria Broackes knows.

Image for Bowie on display

On May 20, the huge David Bowie exhibition opens at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. We spoke to the mastermind behind the show, curator Victoria Broackes.

After its huge success at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with around 315,000 visitors, the raved-about exhibition makes its way to Berlin after a stop in São Paulo before moving on to Chicago, Paris and Groeningen in the Netherlands. Through August 10, visitors will be able to see Bowie’s grit and grandeur in an immersive display of sound and vision with more than 300 objects and a newly expanded Berlin section with an additional 50.

What’s the concept behind the exhibition?

Bowie is a pioneer not only in music, but also in rock theatre, video, digital downloading – he’s always personally involved in everything that he creates and he’s so often cited as an influence by musicians and designers. So the concept for the exhibition was to really look at the process whereby he works and also to analyse in some depth what it is that makes him so influential.

How did you translate that to the actual set-up?

It was critical that it wasn’t going to be like any other museum exhibition we’d ever seen before – certainly more immersive. The objects mostly came from the David Bowie Archive, which is huge; it’s got 75,000 objects. We then put Bowie’s material into context, so there’s a lot of other material relating to wider culture or art and design or things that influenced Bowie.

It was incredibly nerve-wracking before we opened, because I felt we’d done something quite daring and different, and people who came naturally had big expectations. For all the glitz and sparkle of the cutting-edge technology we used in the exhibition, it was the merging of that technology with original objects that people found really exciting: reading lyrics and hearing the music at the same time and being able to turn around and see an original costume.

What sort of reactions did you get when it opened in London?

We immediately got a very powerful and positive reaction from the public; we did have people bursting into tears. We had a comments book at the end of the exhibition, and we literally received tens of thousands of comments. It was interesting, because obviously the exhibition is about David Bowie and the broader culture around Bowie. But in the end it made people very reflective about their own lives; it got to them personally. I know many of his fans always felt that Bowie changed their lives. He’s not just a man, he’s a way of life.

Funnily, I was initially… not sceptical about that, I just didn’t feel part of it. Now I sort of do feel part of it!

Did any reactions in particular stand out?

There’s a kind of performance section, which is just about the last thing that you see. People would go into that area and they would stay there for hours! They were dancing, and there was an incredible sense of camaraderie. That was probably the ‘wow’-moment where the emotion was very strong. We also had a lot of funny letters coming in.

About the geometric Ziggy costume in the exhibition, Bowie used to say that he got the fabric from Liberty’s and then he would laughingly say, “Actually, it was probably the markets.” I mentioned that in an interview once. Then I got a letter from a woman saying, “Actually it was from Liberty’s, I got the fabric as well. Here’s a picture of me wearing the dress I made from it.” The public has a wealth of knowledge; we got a lot of information and a lot of offers of material – a lot of joining in.

What do you think are the most special pieces in the exhibition?

Certainly some of the Yamamoto costumes are amazing. And the lyrics! But for me the most exciting thing was the sketches that we found. Bowie was going to make a film, and then he storyboarded this film. I’d read that he’d done that, but it turned out that the material was in the archive. It also includes material going back to when he was 16-17: sketches of him with various bands, costume designs and theatre sets for them. At that age he was already bringing together the idea of a strong visual identity. It’s quite astonishing to have that.

Why put on the exhibition at that particular moment in time?

I was introduced to David Bowie’s manager and discovered that he had this fantastic archive, so I was immediately excited about the possibility of doing an exhibition. It was just a once-in-a-career opportunity. As you know these things take years, so between that meeting and the opening was about two and a half years – and that was working at a hugely fast pace. We were as surprised as anyone when the new single came out [“Where Are We Now?”].

His first new material in 10 years, just two months before your opening!

I think Bowie was becoming more and more famous for being silent, and bringing out a new album and single actually could have gotten in the way of that. It was just one of those things where it all came together with very fabulous timing. Which of course is a Bowie trademark!

What’s new in Berlin

The original London exhibition had a section on Berlin (including Bowie’s 1976 S-Bahn map), which local curator Christine Heidemann expanded with an additional 50 objects, many of which reflect Bowie’s passion for German culture, notably German expressionism. He was a frequent visitor to the Brücke Museum in Dahlem, from which he drew visual inspiration: among the Berlin-exclusive gems are two works by Erich Heckel, “Roquairol” and “Männerbildnis”, which inspired the covers of Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced The Idiot and Bowie’s own “Heroes”.

DAVID BOWIE IS has been extended till August 24, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstr. 7, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz, Mon-Sun 10-20.

Originally published in issue #127, May 2014.