Exhibitions have become central to museum funding. Probably the biggest development in my lifetime was the arrival of Tutankhamun at the British Museum in (I think) 1974, which created a sensation. Where once you visited permanent displays many times and saw occasional loaned-out items, suddenly items that had been impossible to see came to you.
Now museums have become analogous to theatres. This seems an organic development; the cost of shipping and insuring Egyptian treasures, say, has become prohibitive, and curation is complex. Completing the circle is the arrival of the ‘experience’, a form of worldwide curation that allows for immersion in the story of a particular exhibition. And central to these has been the addition of staging.
Yesterday I caught up with the David Bowie exhibition curated by the V&A, which I missed in London and is currently touring major world cities. It seems to me entirely valid that it should do so because Bowie, born David Jones, was someone who set out to create an alternate identity in all areas of his life, and along the way influenced art, film and music. You probably don’t realise just how much he did until you explore his story.
The reaction of some to such exhibitions is ‘But I’m not interested in that kind of music’. It doesn’t stop us from seeing the works of a painter we don’t know, so it’s best to think of it as learning about art from a different source. The Bowie staging is concisely and intelligently handled, wedding his work to social change (a sneering, outraged piece from the TV show Nationwide is particularly telling) and the obsessions of the late 20th century. Bowie presented himself as an alien visiting a world in which he had no place; no wonder Nic Roeg directed him in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
The Bjork exhibition, also currently touring the world, is a further step into immersion. In this we were wired up with VR headsets and earphones, and could walk around in other worlds Bjork had manufactured. These took us inside landscapes, fantasies, physical states (pain, loss) and even inside her body. Less influential and perhaps more solipsistic than most, the exhibition becomes more of an experience and less of a learning curve, and often teeters on the edge of pretence. It’s all very beautiful, and there’s an end sequence, with Bjork and David Attenborough discussing new forms of music based on the natural and scientific worlds, and the use of an educational app that is showing schoolchildren how to create innovative musical notation, showed some of her other interests.
The Pink Floyd exhibition currently at London’s V&A, which I’ll be seeing shortly, showcases their interest in wedding longford musical pieces to surreal art, film, stage and photography, exploring their influences on other artists and how avowedly non-commercial art reaches the mainstream. You would have to know nothing at all about them to disagree with their inclusion in a museum. I remember being strongly influenced by their work in art classes.
I can imagine a small handful of other influential performers (it would be good to see a key black performer – Bowie’s hero was Little Richard) but the danger in all of this is that success will bring too many such shows which strive for social pertinence and importance. The cultural impact of Right Said Fred or Jay-Z, anyone?
If we ask ourselves where Bowie stood on the line between art and commerce, it’s worth remembering that his producer refused to release ‘Space Oddity’ because it was too commercial!