ABBA: Super Troupers Exhibition, Southbank Centre, until 29 April 2018
An immersive exhibition about the musical journey of ABBA opened at Southbank centre in December 2017 and can be visited until the end of April 2018, with one of the band members, the legendary Björn Ulvaeus, having been present at its opening. ABBA is the Swedish group that enjoyed its international success in the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, and is now having one of the umpteenth revivals of public interest in its legacy and recordings. But what is it that we wish or try to remember, where do we want to go when we think of ABBA? It seems that this exhibition wanted to explore our desires to travel to the past – and indeed who would not have given an arm to go to the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s, either if one has lived through them or hasn’t? This is one of those exhibitions that taps on our memories and nostalgia that would be different for each visitor and would in many cases be correlated to his or her age, but strangely enough would bring to the light some unconscious longings and dreams for almost everybody.
This attempt to re-create as much the world of ABBA as the world of the 1970s is what stands behind the immersive exhibition at Southbank. It is located below the ground level, and thus situated below the venue for free concerts inside the RFH, but you would certainly forget you are in such a prosaic place once you are there. There are limitations to suspension of disbelief, as, obviously, these are only objects pretending to belong to the era where they once were being used. However, ABBA exhibition is one of those cases where you, as once the poet Alexander Pushkin, ‘long to be deceived’. You enter into it through what could be called the decompression area, where a real Super Trouper light belonging to RFH welcomes you to the world of celebrities, and the 80-s disco sparkles are running around you on the ceiling with a medley of ABBA songs all around you. The mood actually does change here, and people’s glances at each other become warmer, as they are in one gang now.
Photo credits: Victor Frankowski
The next room you enter is what one could call a typical British room of the 1970s. It is supposed to reflect the gloomy feeling of the time which was brightened up by the early singles of ABBA (‘Ring Ring’). It did not look that gloomy to me, and actually worked fine in terms of immersiveness. One wanted to stay in that sitting room, relax on a leather sofa, play Scrabble and read books, and may be get ready to go out and see a Stoppard play, or just remain internet-free for hours. It is at this point that a 60-year old man in our group emerged as an expert on what we were seeing, as he evidently seemed to remember it from his own youth. Then suddenly you go out of the comfortable zone of everyday life and enter into the ABBA world by finding yourself in the Napoleon Suite of Brighton Grand Hotel. This is where the group stayed when they won Eurovision in 1974 with their single ‘Waterloo’, and the room features replica outfits and a replica guitar used on that evening. It is strange, though, that the guitar is to be found inside a bed, while blue outfits hanging in glass cabinets ruin the feeling of authenticity, but a move to the next room through a wardrobe (almost like in Narnia) adds a really nice touch.
Photo credits: Victor Frankowski
Then, a bit out of timeline, the visitors walk through a Swedish folk park. A bunch of plastic trees look a bit uncanny, but some documents and photographs with ABBA band members in their pre-group times (although Agnetha Fältskog became famous at a very tender age of 18) are indeed great to look at. Especially fascinating are some translations of Beatles songs into Swedish that I tried to memorize and that seemed witnesses to their roots in Swedish pop and schlager culture. They were indeed the ones ABBA tried to ‘abba’ndon in their search for international fame, but that in the end were the very reason for their success, as their Scandinavian looks, voices and manners were there, however pan-European or pan-global they aspired to be. It is strange to think that now every musician tries to search for authenticity in his imagined or real national legacy, while in the 1970s it was UK and US that were centripetal forces controlling the development of music trends due to increased commercialization of musical production.
The most ‘true ABBA’ part of the exhibition, it seems, is the recreation of the Polar recording studio that follows next and that, apart from the wood-clad studio with a 24 track analog tape recorder and a Dolby Sound System of the period, boasts the Hitachi headphones worn by Agnetha and Frida, a silver microphone stand owned by the band, and an original acoustic guitar owned by Björn and Benny. A suggested ‘group’ activity of karaoke to a ‘Dancing Queen’, in fact, ruins the atmosphere, as one could just sit there and imagine that everything is ready for a new recording session and band members will enter the room in a second. The voice of the narrator Jarvis Cocker (text written by Jude Rogers) sometimes interferes with emotions the exhibits could bring forth, and makes one lose the individual connection that could be established through private musings among those memorable objects. The 'Caravans' room, though, is less successful in creating the authentic atmosphere of the Sydney Showgrounds backstage of ABBA’s Australian tour of 1977, although some video footages and especially the interview with the group’s costume designer Owe Sandström are nice to watch. They show how the iconography of ABBA was created through costumes and videos that were often done on a shoestring but we very inventive in bringing the singers to everyone's personal space. This effect could not be replicated in live concerts and (for me it was a revelation) this is why ABBA never toured extensively, preferring to concentrate on creating the product in their recording studio and in TV-sessions. Interestingly, the next room, the 'Nightclub Toilet Disco', in fact, tries to present a counter-argument to this non-touring image, and displays tickets, stickers and posters and other merchandise from the group’s concerts in Japan and UK. Interesting wiki fact here is that Russia paid their royalties in oil commodities because of the embargo on the ruble in the late 1970s. And if one ever wanted to move through the world through abandoned toilet cabins (an eccentric wish, but), one has a rare chance to do it here.
Photo credits: Victor Frankowski
The next room is called ‘Melancholy – The Split’ and it is the room where I wanted to stay longer. It is the front room of the Swedish apartment with lots of unpacked boxes with LPs and books. It supposedly shows how Agnetha settled in her new flat after her divorce and the split of ABBA. But somehow it has this specific Swedish feel that one wants to abandon all things British and go to Sweden immediately. There is a wonderful Swedish volume of Carl Larsson’s paintings as well as Swedish books and LPs of Swedish music of different genres. Somehow one even forgets about ABBA and its glamour and just wants to explore these objects. It is surprising how in modern times one longs for authenticity of a particular national culture which seems no longer entirely possible in a modern globalized world. But the tour guide urges people to move on, and one finally finds oneself on ABBA’s private plane (real jet chairs to sink in) and learns about their legacy, while being able to see their fan mail, replicas of four puppets of ABBA by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, an ABBA ‘gold cassette’ (quite a dinosaur of a kind), costumes from ‘Mamma Mia’ the Musical (2017) and different parodies made by modern pop artists and stand-up comedians. This is a bit of mish-mash, and one sits there brooding about turning that Carl Larsson volume again or going back to that British sitting room of the 1970s once more. May be ABBA is indeed about the time they sang in and not about the hits they made? The group does make you feel nostalgic and this exhibition is quite a powerful route to your hidden memories or fantasies of the past, so be brave and explore them, as they will surely be different for each of us.
Installations at ABBA: Super Troupers exhibition. Photo credits: Victor Frankowski