Bob Marley — One Love Experience: can a cannabis forest reel in crowds?

A report by Dan Cairns for The Times of London.

The organisers of the Bob Marley One Love Experience, which opens at the Saatchi Gallery in London on Wednesday, will be casting a nervous eye over their shoulders. They are surfing on a wave of 1970s nostalgia, hoping they can emulate David Bowie Is, the acclaimed 2013 exhibition that is widely accepted as setting the benchmark for how to do these things.

The danger, though, is that One Love Experience will be lumped in with My Name Is Prince, a lacklustre affair held at the O2 in 2017, a year and a half after the singer’s death.

In the Saatchi Gallery’s cavernous exhibition spaces American director Jonathan Shank and his team are racing to get the rooms ready. The sound of drills and staple guns fills the air, as three years of work with the Marley family comes to fruition. The themed rooms — including the verdant, multisensory One Love Forest where fake cannabis leaves hang from the ceiling and a silent disco in the Soul Shakedown Studio — will feature unseen photographs, gold and platinum discs, rare concert footage, fan art and more.

Playing football in Jamaica

There is, inevitably, a VIP room for those with deeper pockets, who can also opt for an exclusive date night in the gallery, for £165. On Saturday nights the exhibition will be open until late with a live DJ (tickets to this are £90) and there will be yoga classes in the forest on Sundays (£65).

The inspiration for the forest came from an unlikely source. “There is this ice cream museum in LA,” Shank says, “And they had this whole room dedicated to mint ice cream, with the mint leaves hanging down from the ceiling. And I thought, ‘Marijuana leaves!’ ”

It’s an ambitious exhibition, which comes with challenges. The veteran publicist Alan Edwards, a long-time Bowie associate, explains how music exhibitions have evolved. “Up until David Bowie Is, pretty much all music exhibitions were just things in glass cases — Freddie Mercury’s microphone, Pete Townshend’s guitar, Hard Rock-style. Which was OK, but you felt no engagement and there tended to be no cultural or social context.” However, he is optimistic. “Bob Marley has a political significance beyond the music. He will last for ever, I’ve no doubt whatsoever. If they can manage to capture that breadth, it could work.”

If successful, rock retrospectives are serious money-spinners. Three years before the Rolling Stones showcase Exhibitionism at the Saatchi, the London run of David Bowie Is at the V&A was the first in an 11-city global tour, which sold more than two million tickets. The London leg alone was seen by 300,000 people, and generated £3.6 million in merchandise sales. In 2017 the V&A was the first stop for Pink Floyd’s exhibition Their Mortal Remains, which is on show in Los Angeles, before moving to Montreal. That too broke records.

”Bob Marley has a political significance beyond the music”

Shank is no fair-weather fan — his son’s middle name is Marley — and is an energetic evangelist for the singer’s music and legacy. When we reach the last of the nine giant rooms the exhibition will fill, he notes that this will house the merchandise store. His comment about its size — “I wasn’t expecting to open an H&M” — comes across as more pragmatic than aghast.

These exhibitions cost serious money to put on and the sale of merchandise is needed to help to foot the bill. When the Saatchi hosted Exhibitionism in 2016, it culminated in a merchandise section whose items included branded pyjamas and a Pringle jumper bearing the lips logo — the latter an eye-watering £420.

Heritage is big business. In the past 15 months, the Stones, Queen and the Bowie estate have all opened retail spaces in the West End of London, each notionally a collection of archive material and rare footage to draw devotees down memory lane, but all targeted at fans’ wallets. Deluxe album reissues by heritage artists are marketed with affluent older fans in mind too: last year’s uber deluxe 50th anniversary edition of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass was priced at a penny shy of £860 and the exclusive hardcover version of Ringo Starr’s new book is $495.

Aubrey Powell, co-founder of the design studio Hipgnosis, which created countless iconic album sleeves for Pink Floyd and more, was co-curator for Their Mortal Remains. “Financial backing is imperative,” he says. “A show as large as Their Mortal Remains, with 17,000 square feet at the V&A, required several million pounds.”

If the exhibition is going to go on tour, as One Love Experience is, costs rise further. “It can cost a million dollars to get in and out of each country,” Powell adds. What are the potential pitfalls for those planning such large-scale retrospectives? “It’s all about time, research and money. If you haven’t got those, and you’re rushing, and just hoping it’s going to look all right, it’s not going to work.”

Can One Love Experience avoid the guitars-in-glass-cases tedium and kerching complacency that have bedevilled some attempts? Wednesday will give us the answer. Total immersion v cynical exploitation. Anything but the Hard Rock experience, Edwards says. “I mean, that’s OK for ten minutes, but then it’s, ‘Can we get a glass of wine here?’ ”

Bob Marley One Love Experience, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, from Wed to Apr 18

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