During the last few years there has been a proliferation of exhibitions focused on popular music: jazz, rock, and pop. It is easy enough to put objects on display from another era, souvenirs that evoke feelings of nostalgia, such as clothing, musical instruments, or printed promotional items.
However, it is something else entirely to exhibit what lies at the heart of our memories of those stars and movements: the music, the sound, and the spirit of the times during which they made their contributions. As another time-based art, film has run into the same problem ever since the first efforts were made by the beloved Henri Langlois to create a museum for it with ‘his’ Cinémathèque Française. Are clothing, posters, scripts, models, and sketches enough when making reference to arts as powerful and intangible as cinema or music? For decades, film and music have played an undeniable role in the construction of our identities, so the attractiveness of creating exhibits around them is easily understood, as a way to reflect the personal, individual links that our society as a whole has established with them.
Now it is David Bowie who is arriving in the form of an exhibition. Bowie, the great chameleon, is perhaps the musician who more than any other cultivated and transformed his image, but nevertheless he is someone whose portrait would remain incomplete without sound. And this is not just because of the number of memorable songs he created, but also because of the way they sound. If there is one thing that distinguishes rock and pop music it is the production, an element that sets these forms apart from other genres of popular music (folk, blues, jazz standards) because of its complexity and personality.
It is easy to characterize the sound of each of Bowie’s artistic phases, from the futuristic reverberations of Space Oddity to the vibrant darkness of I’m Deranged. But this sonic dimension is not so easy to exhibit, demonstrate, reveal, or analyze. And this is true even if the songs are playing at full volume in the galleries. Exhibitions, we must remember, are walked through. They present an enveloping layer of information, ideas, objects, documents, and memories that soak into us as we walk among them.
Bowie, as an artist and as a phenomenon, has provided everything that can be put on display in an exhibition: he represents the interplay of fashion, stagecraft, cinema, the zeitgeist of various decades, the best in promotional arts (album covers, videos), and a healthy dose of controversy. The visual dimension of his career is monumental, full of breakthroughs, peaks and valleys, milestones, and the sublimely absurd. But unlike so many other stars, the images in Bowie, of Bowie, do not infringe upon his music (Prince) or serve largely as a display of self-promotion and eccentricity (Elton John), they are instead an essential part of his artistic and musical identity. Many have run aground after accepting that deal with the devil that obligates any aspiring pop star to present an image and a character on the screen, especially since the arrival of MTV. Some, like Costello or Mellencamp, were able to withstand that dictatorship of the image, while others – many, too many – became intoxicated by vanity and their own reflections. Finally, there are those few who seem to have been born for this business of images, ideas, and sounds. Bowie, in fact, gave shape to himself ever since his first disguise as Ziggy.
Professor of the Master in Creative Documentary