I wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in a best-selling show? Of course he will, you idiot. Just because he preferred not to fly over to London to see the sell-out retrospective exhibition of his capes, heels and notepads, David Bowie Is at the V&A, curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, has the full blessing of the Dame Himself. How could it not? Most of the stuff here – and boy, there’s a lot of stuff, over 300 items – comes from Bowie’s own archive. I want to go to there. Until that happens, this will very much suffice.
For an artist so iconic, long-lived, prolific and spread enthusiastically across so much mixed media, David Bowie keeps himself relatively to himself. Since his heart attack in 2004, now 66, he’s kept travel and work to a minimum – guest appearances in the studio and onstage with the likes of TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire, Scarlett Johansson – and I for one had resigned myself to a future with no major new release, glad to have seen him at Wembley on the Reality tour which he had to cut short in 2004 after the chest pains.
Where Are We Now? and The Next Day came as pleasant, fanfareless surprises, but despite what Waldemar Januszczak implied in his snooty review in the Sunday Times, the V&A exhibition was not designed as a promotional blitz for the new record, as the new record had no release date when the archive was raided, nor did it feel like an advert. There are a couple of references to the new LP, but if anything, David Bowie Is feels like a memorial, or at least a testimonial. A full-blooded, high-flying, celebratory one, but a testimonial nonetheless. It’s fantastic that he’s been back in the studio, but he’s given us so much already over five decades, it seems greedy to expect more.
Having booked a 4pm slot at the V&A, we were unaware that this would mean being turfed out of the exhibition at 5.30pm, and there’s enough here to keep a Bowiephile engrossed and wide-eyed for at least two hours, if not three, as you move chronologically and occasionally thematically through his life, constantly distracted by words, music, stills, moving pictures and annexes. Although the vast collection seems to have dummied up pretty much every significant outfit Bowie ever wore onstage or in a video – and, as Peter Contrad observed in The Observer, in an otherwise incoherent review, the costumes operate like the skins he has constantly shed – it’s the details, and the smaller items, that demand your closer attention: a pencil sketch on an opened-out packet of Gitanes; a photo of Little Richard in a gilt frame he must have borrowed off his parents in the 50s that Bowie still apparently treasures; a xeroxed manifesto for the Beckenham Arts Lab which the young idealist hoped to get off the ground in his Kent hometown in the early 60s (and with which Alexis Petredis seemed particularly taken in his uniquely useful, adroit and witty Guardian review); the typed letter to his manager drily announcing the name-change to “Bowie” … there’s even a tissue he’s used to dab his lipstick, although that may have crossed the line from appreciation into idolatry.
I liked the items that aren’t his, but are displayed to add context and texture to his journey, like the pile of science fiction paperbacks, the poster for a Hendrix gig he attended, and the oddly moving cover of the Times in 1969 bearing the photograph of earth taken from space. Again, Januszczak was predictably sniffy about Bowie’s own art, but I loved his painted portrait of Japanese writer and ritual suicidist Yukio Mishima, which he had above his bed in Berlin (there’s a whole room dedicated to what the exhibition calls his “black and white period” in West Germany), and his line drawings of his Mum and Dad were, again, rather moving. More practically, his sketches for sleeves and stage sets, as well as costumes, all of which were realised by professional illustrators, designers and costumiers, showed just how clear his vision has always been. And how hands-on he was, and remains.
The people shuffling round around us were of “a certain age”, and clearly transfixed, as well as taken back to important moments in their own life soundtracked by Bowie. You are forced to wear headphones and to listen to an electronically-triggered soundtrack, but I took mine off (don’t try and tell me what to do, The Man!), as there’s enough sensory information without another layer. I liked that some people were possibly unwittingly singing along to the tunes in their ears.
There’s not much I can say about Bowie that hasn’t already been said a hundred thousand times. If you can take or leave him, or only know the hits, you may find David Bowie Is a bit much. If, however, you consider him the greatest and most diverse musical solo artist of the last century (and some of this one), this exhibition will thrill you constantly, in miniature, and in widescreen. The final room – a vast hall, really – has floor to ceiling film of Bowie live, projected onto a sort of thin netting that allows further dummies in costume to be illuminated through it. It’s a rock concert finale to a symphony of memory, allusion, art, ephemera, light, shade, tone and poetry that also tells you whose shirts he wears. Because of the venue, most publications have sent their art critics to review the show, and many have failed to take its pulse. It’s art, but not as they know it.
Me? I was excited enough to actually see an original 1975 pack of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s famous Oblique Strategies cards, in a glass case, which influenced Bowie during his Burroughs cut-up stage.
This is what some of them suggest, in order to eliminate creative blockage:
- Use an old idea.
- Try faking it!
- Work at a different speed.
- Do the washing up.
Here’s the lyric from Blackout, which is displayed in the exhibition. You should try and see it, really.
Oh, you can buy a publicity shot for the Diamond Dogs album taken in London, 1974 by Terry O’Neill, from a limited edition of 50, for £4,800 from the gift shop, or walk away with a Bowie plectrum for 75p. There’s plenty of other gifts in between, too, many of them V&A exclusives (and you can order online, but I suspect you’d rather handle and inspect them first). I hope they take this show on the road so that you don’t have to come to London to see it between now and August 11 (and most of the tickets have been sold already; the fastest selling show in Victoria and Albert’s history).
This is a show for all – that is, all the tall-short-fat-skinny people with an ear for David Bowie, not just Metropolitan dandies and tourists. Again, Januszczak is plain wrong when he says that the V&A looks ridiculous trying to be “down with the kids”. It’s not really aimed at the kids, although the kids might learn something (that Lady Gaga didn’t think of this, for a start), and I was impressed to see a very young school party queuing up when we popped back for the shop this afternoon. What a cool school trip.
- Are there sections? Consider transitions.