David Bowie is - How Geoff Marsh laid Bowie’s life barer than ever before

Concept visual of the V&A's David Bowie exhibition

Concept visual of the V&A's David Bowie exhibition - Credit: Archant

As the V&A prepares to pay tribute, curator Geoff Marsh tells Alex Bellotti about a legend still making music as a pensioner

‘We’re not Bowie specialists,” claims Geoff Marsh in a bright, crowded corner of the Victoria and Albert Museum café. It is an ironic testament to the curator’s professionalism that in the two hours we’ve been talking, this is probably the first inaccurate statement he’s made. Having previously heard him recite from memory the pattern of the musician’s school jacket, the birthdays of both his parents and the precise composition of Bowie’s short-lived mime troupe, Feathers, one thing can be certain – Marsh has done his research.

He has had to. As director of the museum’s theatre and performance department, the South End Green resident has overseen the creation of David Bowie Is, the new exhibition that last month shattered the museum’s record for advanced booking sales. Based within two huge galleries, it promises to be the sort of vibrant, varied experience one would associate with Bowie himself.

Rather than explore the man chronologically, the museum opts to structure the show thematically, exploring the methodology behind Bowie’s poetic lyrics, flamboyant dress sense and genre-melting music.

“I was talking to my 15-year- old son,” says Marsh, “and what I realised is that young people don’t look at him chronologically, like those who grew up with him. Where we used to look at his influences, kids are looking at who he’s influenced. Bowie is now a kind of cultural soup.”

Of course, David Bowie is a lot of things. Acutely aware of this, Marsh stresses that the exhibition’s name, penned by writer and Bowie disciple Paul Morley, is as much a question as it is a statement. He is even keener to stress that this is how it should remain.

“We live in a world where every superstar has to be stripped of their mystique, brought back to the mundane. If Lady Gaga’s eating a slice of toast, we know about it.

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“That’s the brilliant thing about Bowie. David Jones was born in the most unglamorous part of London, in a year where more people were born than ever before. He’s just so ordinary. Yet no one ever spots David Jones in a café. Instead they see this fantastic, puzzling man who’s actually as much a character as Ziggy Stardust. Bowie doesn’t exist.”

David Bowie is everywhere

For someone who doesn’t exist, Bowie’s been doing a fine impression recently. In every paper and on every music website, there’s a new article out by the hour covering not just the exhibition but the surprise album few thought he would ever make.

“We honestly knew nothing about The Next Day. I began to know something was up but no one would spill it, absolutely no one,” Marsh laughs. “The fact that he can still keep whole albums and videos secret in this climate just goes to show though how he cultivates this unbelievable loyalty.”

This, however, could be one of the museum’s biggest challenges. Bowie, despite making available his entire life’s work, has distanced himself from having any involvement with the exhibition. Does this not leave Marsh and his team open to criticism from a famously fanatic fan base?

“When we started, it did seem odd to work without him, but what you realise is you can’t do an exhibition with Bowie. He’s got such strong views that there wouldn’t be any room for interpretation, for us or the fans. I do think we’ve found hints and nudges in his work, but you can still imagine him saying as soon as it opens, ‘I agree with nothing in this exhibition’. He’s got that sense of humour.”

In his excellent article for The Telegraph, Paul Morley suggests Bowie’s devilish humour is also the reason for the album being released almost in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening. It is a thought that Marsh has considered at great length, but one he dismisses in favour of a more existential notion.

“It always intrigues me how people cope after work. You can be the CEO of the BBC and then you retire and suddenly you’re nothing. For whatever reason, it’s the same with pop stars, people expect their career to die young.

“In any walk of life, if you want to live and speak past 65, you’ve got to dump the past. Trusting us with his archive was humbling, but perhaps more than anything Bowie was just getting rid of it. With the new album as well, he’s signalling in a new era of old age pension chic.”

With phrasing like that, the amount of not just factual, but creative and intellectual devotion Marsh and his team have put into the project hits you. On my way out of the museum, I ask their press officer, Alice Evans, if she actually likes Bowie. She says that she does, but she’s very much looking forward to hearing other music again.

Everyone has been consumed by this Bowie bubble, Marsh most of all. His mind is a space oddity, exceeding the limitations of human memory to transform him into a living, breathing encyclopaedia of the enigmatic glam star. By the time I leave, he’s given me enough information to write my own book and accidentally missed two meetings in the process. The character himself may shun definition, but until this August, you can be sure than David Bowie is the life of everyone involved at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

n David Bowie Is runs from Saturday until August 11 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.