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John Lennon once said of David Bowie: ‘I never really knew what he was, and meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue, because you don’t know which one you’re talking to’.
With ‘David Bowie is’, the new show at the V&A that has broken all previous records for advance bookings, the curators have clearly decided not to decide. Each room has an irritating sign beginning with the words ‘David Bowie is’ (‘David Bowie is crossing the border’, says one, so you get the idea). A life so dominated by music is an odd choice for the V&A, justified by the claim of the museum’s director, Martin Roth, that Bowie is ‘among the great design visionaries’ of the last 50 years. Exaggeration is usual among museum folk, but even so the visuals were always good with Bowie and, signage apart, most of what is on show here is a visual treat.
The curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, were allowed to choose over 300 items from Bowie’s archive, which apparently has several thousand pieces. Fortunately for us he may be the patron saint of hoarders. The chosen items range from scribbled lyrics in pencil, to paintings, from photographs to videos and films, from outrageous (at the time) costumes to elegant suits, from sketches to scale models of stage sets. It’s a gorgeous profusion of beautiful and interesting things.
Given that it would be difficult to make all this look dull, it was evidently felt that the design of the show itself had to live up to the contents. Hence, everywhere you look there are moving images on screens varying from very small monitors to, at the climax of the exhibition, vast screens that go the full height of a double- (triple-?) height gallery. Here you are immersed in both sound and vision and, leaving aside its suitability for a museum of design, it is a most impressive experience, engineered in part by Sennheiser, credited with creating the ‘sound experience’ of the show. On which, more later.
On entering the first thing you see is the striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973) designed by Kansai Yamamoto – if I say ‘the balloon trousers’ you will know which one I mean (find the image on the carousel above). This is genuinely impressive – it looks as if moving in it would be difficult, though plainly he did. It contrasts with the costume designed for Bowie’s appearance on the US TV show ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 1979 and shown some way into the V&A show. Based on a design by Sonia Terk Delaunay (1885–1979) for a 1923 Tristan Tzara play, this was absolutely impossible to move in, and Bowie had to be carried on to the set. The costume is there and a monitor close by shows him performing in it.
The show is arranged thematically, although a chronological element is also present. The first area is devoted to early influences, and we see images of a teenage Bowie in his first groups; film of an Anthony Newley TV show; images of post-war London, of John Lennon and Brian Epstein; his first single (a flop called ‘Liza Jane’). Some of it seems somewhat tangential: did he actually ever see Roelof Louw’s pyramid of fresh oranges, Soul City, exhibited at the Drury Lane Arts Club in 1967, a year before Bowie performed there? (I am not allowed to show you a photograph of this, but imagine an incomplete pyramid; possibly the budget did not run to enough oranges or the other hacks ate them before I got in.)
Moving on, in every direction is a profusion of objects and moving images. Many displays are imaginative – Siouxsie Sioux’s comment that ‘David Bowie comes with a reading list’ (which fans of my generation will understand) is evoked by stands that look like a giant’s copies of Orwell’s 1984 and George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle. No Vile Bodies, though, the first Waugh book I ever read, on reading that it was the inspiration for ‘Aladdin Sane’. That ‘Top of the Pops’ performance is played life-size and larger behind a mannequin wearing the original costume. In a roomdevoted to videos, and including costumes made for them, is a bank of monitors reminiscent of the scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Thomas Newton (played by Bowie) watches multiple screens simultaneously. These monitors all show different videos while the music you hear relates to any one of them – you find yourself looking for the video that matches the sound.
I spotted some cards, provided by Brian Eno for use in the sessions that produced the ‘Berlin triptych’, designed to stimulate creativity by encouraging one to do something unexpected. One of them reads ‘Do the washing up’. British readers who saw the recent ‘Horizon’ TV programme on means of stimulating creativity may recall that this was one of the pieces of advice given by a scientist studying the subject – a case of science taking 30-plus years to catch up with art. One area is devoted to the Berlin period, with what looks like Weimar-era film as a backdrop to items ranging from a Japanese koto – a tiny stringed instrument used in recording ‘Moss Garden’, to an early synthesizer used in the same sessions, and Bowie’s instantly recognizable painting of Iggy Pop, his flatmate in Berlin.
Of course, the primary ‘context’ for all these visual elements is the music – had that not been so good (and at least as various as the costumes – surely no one could either hate it all or like it all) the V&A would hardly be bothering with this show. Presenting this in a museum setting was a major challenge, largely, though not completely, overcome by Sennheiser. You get a gadget like an audio guide and headphones. Irritatingly there is no strap to carry it by – wear something with convenient pockets! As you move around, it picks up the appropriate sound, whether occasionally crackly background music or the speech or music accompanying a video. Moving even slightly can lose the appropriate signal, however, and after three tries I had still only heard the first few sentences of Howard Goodall’s (doubtless interesting) opinion of ‘Space Oddity’.
Mostly it works well. I was able to listen to a number of videos: clothing designer Kansai Yamamoto recalling his Japanese aesthetic and Bowie’s Western sensibility ‘crashing head to head’; Jonathan Barnbrook, designer of the cover for the new Bowie album, on how he approached his task; producer Tony Visconti on recording with Bowie. Comments from such people, intimately involved in realizing Bowie’s ideas, are full of interest.
Arriving at the largest – amazing – gallery, you will linger, mesmerized by the giant screens that sometimes show one image and sometimes multiple ones, moving and still. Here there are also more costumes, though frustratingly a little too far away to see clearly, and intricate models of stage sets largely designed by Bowie. Overall, the experience here is of being totally immersed in the sound and vision of multiple performances – one really could spend a long time in this one room.
The final room shows videos and pictures of younger stars clearly adopting elements of his aesthetic from various periods; catwalk models in clothes similarly inspired; and Tilda Swinton and Annie Lennox evidently channelling Bowie. His influence on fashion, even decades later, is undeniable.
Then it is out to the museum shop, where in a moment of possibly unintentional humour the last of those signs appears: ‘David Bowie is so swishy in her satin and tat’ – and I thought, ‘well, you said it, folks’. That sign could go up in every museum shop in the country. The show itself though? Not to be missed!
Media credit: © The David Bowie Archive 2012