Article by AJ Kiyoizumi in Berlin; Tuesday, June 3, 2014
David Bowie said that while he was growing up he wanted to be a “trendy person, not a trend.” In a way he succeeded: as one of the most important artists for the past 50 years, he has managed not to succumb to any single fleeting trend. However, defining Bowie as a trendy person would also be incorrect — he has up-ended trends and created his own genre of art and music. Transcending his own ambitions, his fame is truly worldwide. In Berlin, he is especially beloved and accepted as a Berliner because of his time spent living in Schöneberg in the late 1970s. During this time, he worked with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and produced three albums known as the Berlin Trilogy. His recording studio, Hansa, overlooked the Berlin Wall, where he would reportedly see a couple secretly meeting by a guard tower — this would later inspire the song “Heroes.”
David Bowie – video for “Where Are We Now” (2013); courtesy of the artist
Bowie’s recent single, “Where Are We Now” is quite melancholic, a nostalgic ode to his time in Berlin. He sings of sitting in the legendary club Dschungel and of “a man lost in time near KaDeWe / Just walking the dead.” Though it is a bit sad that the pop star’s apartment on Hauptstraße 155 is now a dentist’s office, it seems that Bowie’s time in Berlin and his creative boom that happened here is to be celebrated, not lamented. The newest exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau has perhaps attracted most of its visitors with the lure of learning more about Bowie’s time in West Berlin, but the exhibition presents an all-encompassing look at his creative process, personas, and performances — from the teenage David Jones defending long-haired rockers from discrimination, to his recent surprise single release in January 2013 at age 66 for his newest album, The Next Day.
The collection of over 300 objects, costumes, films, interviews and more from the David Bowie Archive is presented by the curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A similar show was presented at the museum in London last year, but the Berlin version presents additional objects pertaining to Bowie’s years spent here, including his interest in Die Brücke school of German Expressionism.
The rooms of the exhibition are each themed around an era in Bowie’s life and work, whether it be the science fiction that inspired Ziggy Stardust, or his acting in productions such as his first starring film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and on Broadway in The Elephant Man. The rooms are packed with artifacts, with much of the text too small and low to read properly. However, the audio guides in this case were spectacular. Instead of requiring the visitor to press the next track surrounding an object, they coordinated with the videos in each room, allowing for an immersive and intense experience, the only kind of way to present the flurry of creativity intrinsic to Bowie.
Perhaps what sets Bowie apart from any other musician is his massive and non-discriminating intake of culture, from mounds of literature to Stanley Kubrick films to Japanese kabuki theater to the space race of the 1960s. In one room we are introduced to the “Verbasizer,” a program Bowie developed with a friend to take headlines and jumble the words into new sentences. From the resulting phrases, he says, “I can reimbue it with an emotive quality if I want to, or take it as it writes itself.” Taking the example of “the top kills himself,” Bowie talks through a creative thread, explaining how that makes him think of bosses or businessmen jumping from windows during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the lines that branch off from that image.
Though the exhibit at first seems intense in its idolization of Bowie, it doesn’t take long to see his genius and realize that it’s a fitting glorification. The most shrine-like room of the exhibit is the most immersive and visually stunning, with numerous costumes on display, onto which lights and tour videos are projected. The original costumes are truly the most fascinating part of the show, from the coat designed with Alexander McQueen, to the many designs from Kansai Yamamoto such as the off-shoulder Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. Other sartorial highlights throughout the show are the shell-like suit from his performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979 and the electric blue “Life on Mars” suit designed by Freddie Burretti
His image and mythos, from gold bindis and lipstick as Ziggy Stardust to his skeletor days as the Thin White Duke, can be distancing. In each room, headers begin with the same three words: “David Bowie Is…” In the last room, a slideshow cites those who draw inspiration from him, reading “David Bowie Is All Around Us.” Though his massive celebrity status is alluring, some of the most fascinating parts of the show at Martin-Gropius-Bau are the interviews and stories that express Bowie’s humanity. After all, in the first room, “David Bowie Isn’t David Bowie Yet.”
AJ Kiyoizumi is a writer living in Berlin.