The androgyny exhibition

BowieIsV&A3

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.

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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.

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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.

BowieV&Alyrics_blackout

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.

The OK foundation

It can be told. Last Tuesday night, in the Main Hall of the Maidwell Building, at the Avenue Campus of the University of Northampton, the frankly legendary Bill Drummond and I gave a joint lecture to students and paying customers as part of the Articulation series of events, curated by Associate Fellow of the university John Harper, who taught Bill in 1971 when he did the one-year foundation art course on this very site, and who taught me in 1983 when I did the one-year foundation art course on this very site. The experience changed both our lives forever and set us on very different paths through art, music and the media, converging occasionally along the way. We both give thanks for that formative experience.

It was John, always a force of nature, who inspired us both, 12 years apart, and who had the momentary lapse of reason to suggest we join forces for one evening under what was a fairly hastily conceived umbrella: Art Vs Art. John’s first, insane optimstic email was sent to both of us at just after midday on May 14 this year. By 3pm that afternoon, we had both said yes, and a date was fixed – far enough into the future to seem conceivable. (For the record, although a long-standing fan of his various works, I had only met Bill on one occasion, although it was to interview him on 6 Music in 2008 for his terrific book 17, so we had, it seemed, bonded sufficiently.)

Over the ensuing months, the three of us pinged emails back and forth, in search of some kind of shape for this live event, which remained amorphous but hopeful even after the tickets had gone on sale. Bill and I had been photographed, for the 6 Music album, in 2008, and this unique shot was all we had for publicity, so out it went into the world.

In it, you can sense the disparity in height (I look up to him etc.), and in attitude. My grinning inanity compares unfavourably with Bill’s authoritative gravity. But there it was.

Over the ensuing five years – five years! – the parting in my hair would change sides, and I would stop wearing black t-shirts that were already frankly inappropriate for a man in his 40s; while Bill would remain pretty much the same. He’d already found his visual brand.

The passage of time turned out to be key to our lecture. (Was it a lecture? Or was it too men talking about themselves? Maybe it was both.) John Harper had caught us both at an impressionable young age, a decade apart, and, as Bill stated, the course at what was then a technical college and years away from attaining university status taught him “not just to look, but to see.” For me, it broadened my artistic palette, and gave me the freedom to express myself in new ways. I’ve always thanked art school – both Nene College, as it was in 1983, and Chelsea School of Art – for exposing my obsession with drawing cartoons for the commercial outlet it was, allowing the act of writing to take over as my creative impulse. I used to draw cartoon strips. But it was the writing in the bubbles and the captions that turned out to be my calling. (God, let’s hope so, as without practice, my drawing ability has withered.)

Now, photographs were taken. The big one above is a phone shot of the sign outside the building, which I intended to relegate and replace with one of me and Bill, when one was supplied. But one shall not be supplied, for the very sound reasons given at the bottom of this blog entry. In the event, and of the event, I only have photos of me and John. Thanks to Fiona Cordingley for supplying these. They’re very good.

Here though is a nice shot of John introducing us. He is hiding behind a photocopied shot of him as a younger man in the 70s; more passage of time. When I arrived at Nene, aged 18, he blew my mind, with his fine art sensibilities and empowering “schemes.” (“What’s the scheme?” he would inquire of his students – not always a question you could answer.)

The “scheme” turned out to be tag-lecturing. Bill (just out of shot, to the right) would tell a relevant anecdote. Then I would tell one. Thinking on our feet, we found hooks and references in each other’s ramblings to feed back into our own. It must, at times, have seemed to the excellent, attentive, wide-age-ranged, in-tune audience of a couple of hundred as if we had planned it all out. Here, you can see my slipping the first JAMs 12″, All You Need Is Love, onto the turntable we asked for. It was fun to be able to go and rummage through my bag-for-life while Bill held the audience’s attention and cue up a vinyl record. Music was our first love, after all. Before art.

I hadn’t warned Bill I was going to play one of his records. (I didn’t even know I still had it until I checked my single flight-case of 12″ vinyl before heading down up to Northampton, and really only played it to illustrate a later point about how much power the NME had over us in the 80s: I read about the record and bought it without having heard a note of it – something unheard of in the download age.) It was the one point in the evening where Bill seemed flustered. Not because he minded me playing it, but because he feared the audience might expect him to riff on his pop career, which he has no interest in doing. We got through it, don’t worry.

In the photo above, subliminally influenced by the guerilla art of Bill Drummond, I have emptied out onto the floor a folder full of my commercial illustration work from 1987-88, after I’d graduated, and during which “pay the rent” period my creative urges were satisfied not by my work, which was soulless and supplied by the yard, but by rustling up my own fanzine and writing and designing it, ready for Kall Kwik. So, indirectly, the soulless art pushed me in the direction of what would be the first rung on another career entirely, one that was driven by art, albeit soon subsumed by the imperatives of commerce. It is a career whose story has been told many times, so I won’t repeat it here.

Tuesday happened also to be my Dad’s birthday, and he came along to the talk, meeting Bill over a fruit plate and two doughnuts in a gallery space which became our de facto “green room.” The age difference between Bill and my Dad is about the same as the age difference between Bill and me, so we got on fine, the three of us. (Dad had rather sweetly looked Bill up on Wikipedia in the afternoon – research!) The combination of my – our – alma mater, the curatorial joie de vivre of the infinite John himself and the presence of my father made Tuesday a very special night indeed. I’m so glad we agreed to do it, against all odds. Perhaps this is how all visiting lecturers should be forced to operate, by being thrown together with another visiting lecture and making it work on the hoof. I sincerely hope that the audience felt they had not wasted their evening. I certainly hadn’t.

Bill’s climactic section involved him donning a high-viz tabard and a bespoke Homburg, and living out his fantasy of being a superhero street sweeper. This was a routine he’d clearly done before, and it was a fitting end to what turned into a two-hour talk, as he swept the stage with his broom. Much of the detritus that required sweeping was, as seen, a pile of my own work. Which was fitting. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d planned it.

I hope to return to the University of Northampton soon, although, in the future, it will up sticks and easels and move to a new site, and will no longer sit hunkered around the old building into which both Bill and I tentatively stepped in 1971 and 1983, respectively. But it doesn’t do to be nostalgic. Bill and I were ancient, and justified, to varying degrees, and have both done varying degrees in big cities other than Northampton, but it was good to be back.

Postscript

Statement from Bill Drummond regarding the absence of photographic evidence of he and I at this event:

Now that we live in an era where we can all post an unlimited amount of information about ourselves I am interested in exploring how little information I can post and still function in the modern world. Part of this includes limiting the photographs taken of me in any one year to no more than ten. I have now reached my limit for 2012.

The ex-flies

OK, went for a belated spin round this exhibition this afternoon, Modern British Sculpture, during what turned out to be a rare hour of spare time in an insanely packed working week. (Good job I didn’t attempt to blog daily about it. It simply would not have happened, with three unexpected 6 Music breakfast shows, which had knock-on effects through my carefully planned days on Wednesday, Thursday and today, pushing their start-times back to around 10.30am and making me that bit more tired due to 5am wake-up calls. Not complaining about the work, mind you.) As I am a Friend of the Royal Academy – a yearly stipend that really pays its way if you ensure that you treat the place like a hotel and see everything that’s going – it’s nice to just pop in, without the pressure of having to squeeze every last drop out of your ticket fee. This latest blockbuster closes next week, so it’s last chance to see great, big things by Antony Caro, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Richard Long and other luminaries. Less of a pleasure to see this:

Entitled Let’s Eat Outdoors Today, it’s a typically striking Damien Hirst that’s typically concerned with death and decay and relies on shock value to make its point, and I object to it. I knew it was in the exhibition, but you always wonder just how cruel these “living” sculptures really will be in the flesh. And this one, a barbecue in two steel and glass cubes inside which hundreds and hundreds of flies are entombed, hits the spot. It’s revolting. It smells a bit. And if the hundreds of flies were replaced by, say, a single kitten, there would be outrage at its exploitative cruelty. But hey, it’s just stupid old flies, right? Pests. Insects. Irritating buzzing things that vomit on food. The effect is successful. You peer inside, wonder where the people have gone, try to work out how Hirst, or his helpers, managed to fill glasses of beer, say, or a box of mouldy marshmallows with layers of dead flies, upon which live flies alight and crawl, and you come quickly to the conclusion that they died as part of the show. It’s snuff art.

The “piece” is new, coined especially for what is otherwise a retrospective exhibition, but I guess Hirst installations are gifts that go on giving: you can rebuild them, and repopulate them with flies whenever and wherever you fancy. I am interested in what Hirst has to say, and I find his formaldehyde suspensions spooky and clever, but mounting dead animals is one thing, killing live ones to make a point is another one altogether. (If, by the way, you are offended by his shark and his cow and his sheep, I respect that, too.) I once saw a Hirst cube that had live butterflies in it. That I found gross too. It’s like the “entertainment” of tipping live insects onto celebrities in I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here: a number are bound to be injured or killed in the process, and humiliating Christine Hamilton or Gillian McKeith necessarily involves humiliating maggots and bugs and flies. I don’t approve. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why you’re allowed to do it, legally, never mind ethically.

I’m all for challenging art. I definitely approve of installation as a legitimate form of artistic expression. But when it involves killing living creatures – there’s even a fly “zapper” in one of the cubes, with a few carcasses stuck to its electrified bars like raisins – I squirm. I’ve read up on it, and it started out as some trays of live maggots, which turned into flies, which then die. It is a narrative. It is evolving art. It’s the circle of life, and says something about us being uncomfortable around dirt, while we all eventually go back to dirt. As I say, not the most profound thing ever thought of, but not stupid in its intent. Except in the act of turning insects into performing installations with wings, which crosses an unhappy line for me. (Mind you, I have been known to rescue flies from drowning. This is my curse.)

Still, I loved seeing Hepworth’s massive Single Form, Caro’s perplexing but pleasing Early One Morning, and Tony Cragg’s stupendous Stack, around which you could walk all day. I was also knocked out by the scale of Alfred Gilbert’s sincere Jubilee Memorial To Queen Victoria, which is a statue rather than a sculpture, and seemed out of place and all the more imposing in a gallery. Nice to take in these huge monuments at close range and in silence. I realise it is someone like Damien Hirst’s job to turn your head and put a pole in the spokes of a traditional gallery-grazing experience, and Let’s Eat Outdoors Today definitely does that. But there ought to be another way.

 

Battlestar Galactica = Art

Ever since Friday, when I saw the fascinating Futurism exhibition at the Tate Modern (now finished, sadly), I’ve been meaning to do this: left, The Rock Drill, a Vorticist sculpture by Jacob Epstein, created in 1914; right, a Cylon, from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, created in 2003 and designed I believe by Pierre Drolet. (I’m currenly working my way through BSG, as the kids call it, and I think it’s possibly one of the greatest US TV series ever made.) Anybody else see any similarities in these two striking images, taken from the best part of a century apart?