There is a wonderful irony in a career retrospective of a living artist that becomes so popular it outlives its subject. In 2010 — long before David Bowie Is travelled to ten other locations around the world, before it landed in Brooklyn earlier this month — London's Victoria & Albert Museum was approached by the rock icon's management to create an exhibit out of the singer's archives. At the time, the idea that such a show would be taken seriously, much less prove to be a success, were hardly foregone conclusions. Music exhibitions of its type were practically non-existent outside of specialty institutions such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The barrier between high and low cultures was, even such a short time in the past, still sturdy.
Nevertheless, says Victoria Broackes, senior curator of the V&A's theater and performance department, Bowie was "quite literally top of the museum's list" of potential single-artist exhibition subjects, and when offered the show, she did not hesitate to say yes — "though I did not really have the authority to say that, given that we're a traditional, 150-year-old museum. I reckoned that people would get how important this opportunity was, and indeed they did." Even as the show opened, its blockbuster appeal in the global museum market was hardly obvious: "We only had one additional venue that was possibly interested [in taking the exhibit]. It was only after the first couple of weeks that we realized, 'God, we sort of have a big hit on our hands.'"
Launched in March of 2013 and co-curated by Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, David Bowie Is treats its subject not merely as a pop star, but as an artist who, in the spot-on words of the curators' preface, "channeled the avant-garde into the populist mainstream without compromising its subversive liberating power."
The exhibit is stacked with the things that super-fans expect: costumes, photos, posters, lyric sheets, art mock-ups, videos, music, film and live clips (delivered by a relatively seamless audio-visual headphone experience), framed by pieces that place Bowie in a historical and cultural context. That context, the post-war slipstream of art and fashion, social ideas and human progress, is the origin story of his unquenchable inquisitiveness. The through-line of how a 17 year-old from a London suburb who founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Men with Long Hair (an interview with young David Jones pontificating on the subject is an early highlight) became a grizzled cyberpunk (developing dawn-of-the-digital-age software for cutting up words and pages in the manner of his heroes Brion Gysin and William Burroughs) is direct and unmistakable.
It isn't only the material that demonstrates Bowie's prolific mutation — according to Broackes, it was purposefully built into the show's skeletal structure, which left room for the exhibition to change, at least a little, at each stop. Walking through the Brooklyn Museum, reveals distinctions great and small to the one installed at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in late 2014; a different order to parts of his story or ulterior emphasis, new set-pieces and items, and shorter, re-imagined functions for some of the programming. A room of in-concert clips that showed hours of footage in Chicago has, for instance, been reduced to five hand-picked performances.