David Bowie is arguably one of the most influential artists of the past decades. Over a fifty year career, he has repeatedly changed the way we look at the world, changed the face of fashion, changed the future of music forever. When on his 66th birthday Bowie released his first new song in ten years, it was undoubtedly a special moment. Bowie was back. And just as his new album The Next Day was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, the V&A’s “David Bowie is” is probably one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year. And quite rightly so – the exhibition exceeds every expectation.
At the entrance I’m handed an audio guide, but an audio guide unlike any other I’ve experienced before. The V&A teamed up with Sennheiser to create a “3D sound experience”, so this technological marvel responds to the space depending on where you’re standing, as Bowie’s music accompanies you through the exhibition – as would only be appropriate. The experience of this show becomes one of sound and vision, and so much more.
The ambitious retrospective opens with Bowie’s Tokyo Pop striped vinyl bodysuit submerged in a dramatic light, as the distinctive riff from Rebel Rebel plays somewhere in the near distance. Above the outfit, a quote from a 1995 interview reads: “All art is unstable. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” Art is of course the epicentre around which the exhibition orbits, but music and fashion are only a fraction of the themes that the show covers, a mere ray in this vast spectrum which embraces art in its never-ending multitude of forms.
The first room focuses on Bowie’s early years, providing a context in which to place the artist’s initial approach to creating music, when aged fifteen he formed his first band, the Konrads. The backdrop is that of London’s music scene of the sixties, represented here by a series of old gig posters and black and white photographs of musicians which line the walls, along with fragments of Bowie’s early life – objects such as an old Oxford Companion to Music from which he taught himself to write music. The book sits in a glass box like a Bible, or a keystone set in time. Above all these mementos, written in gaudy red neon lights is: “David Bowie is crossing the border”. This statement might refer to the young David Jones changing his name to Bowie, but to me, “the border” stands for every single border that ever existed, as where there are borders, Bowie crossed them with an elegant leap of his long legs, and always has and always will. The captions inform us that David Bowie was born in Brixton in 1947 – however, the rest of the exhibition seems to prove otherwise, as I become more and more convinced that the man really did fall to earth from a distant planet.
I walk along, gawking at handwritten music scores dating back to 1967, and old books which once belonged to the Thin White Duke (amongst which Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, inspiration for the homonymous song), as his voice plays softly and eternally charming in my ears: “I wanted to be well known, I wanted to be an instigator of new ideas”. And I daresay he has beyond succeeded thus far. From the absolute beginning, Bowie shows an interest in practically each and every from of art, whether it be literature, film, painting, theatre, photography or fashion, drawing influences from an infinity of sources, absorbing the culture around him like a glamorous sponge. Throughout the exhibition there are battered copies of books – Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World… and film posters – 2001: Space Odyssey, The Blue Angel, Cabaret, Clockwork Orange, Metropolis. One of Bowie’s incredible virtues is his ability to forever be in step with the times, yet to also forever be one step ahead.
In December 1968 the first ever colour photograph of the earth from space was published. Simultaneously, Kubrik’s 2001: Space Odyssey was released and together these circumstances determined a major influence on Bowie’s music. In the July of the following year Space Oddity was released as a single, coinciding with the first moon landing. Bowie made his breakthrough when the BBC chose to broadcast Apollo 11’s landing on television accompanied by the song, sending the musician’s career rocketing to success. In a dimly lit room the original Space Oddity music video plays side by side with Bowie’s themed jumpsuit and the guitar chords scribbled in pen on a sheet of score paper, the ink smudged by decades-old water drops. It’s almost hard to believe that they are the real thing. Just like the photograph of planet earth from space, these objects, these memories, are pieces of history. They are determinate moments in one man’s life, which today continue to influence those of thousands of people across the world.
Bowie’s fascination with dystopian futures and science fiction is strongly present throughout the early seventies, with the recording of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In the corner of the room three framed pieces of paper hang on the wall. These are the handwritten lyrics to Oh! You Pretty Things, Five Years and Starman. I read the lyrics of the latter as the song plays from my audio guide, following the words as David Bowie sings them, imagining his pen gliding across the paper, and the process of thought guiding it. It really is an extraordinary sensation to find oneself face to face with these written verses and to contemplate Bowie’s slightly childish handwriting, with the little circles above his “i”s. Beautiful. I’m captivated by the words and the music, hypnotised even, and all of a sudden I turn around and my visual field is taken over by blinding lights and a multitude of mirrors reflecting each other and large screens hanging from the ceiling and overlapping projections beamed onto surfaces and books hanging above flashy garments – and amidst this orgiastic visual extravaganza stands Bowie’s Starman suit. This is the Clockwork Orange-inspired outfit which Bowie describes as “ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics”, as seen on the Top of the Pops 1972 broadcast – an unforgettable and decisive moment in music history.
A caption on the wall reads: “‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you’ Bowie sings. He is making it up, constructing an identity, plucking ideas from everywhere. You can join him. You have been chosen. You can be whoever you want to be.” The eccentric individual proved that young people were free to express themselves and fight against conformity, becoming a spokesperson for the outcasts, a prophet for the outsiders. David Bowie is the epitome of self-expression.
I wander into the large space filled with costumes and books and projections and a montage of songs playing overhead, flooding the room, luring in the spectators. The thing about this exhibition is that there is so much to take in – the way the space is so beautifully structured makes me think this is what happens in David’s head. This is where all the magic happens, where it all began, how it all came to life. And it’s perfect. Two hours later I felt quite frankly exhausted. But that good sort of exhaustion, the kind which leaves you feeling closer to a spiritual ecstasy.
David Bowie says about his lyrics: “I like the idea that they’re vehicles for other people to interpret or use as they will” – which is essentially what the man did with everything he came across, from cinema to Andy Warhol, from fashion to Die Brücke, from literature to Japanese Kabuki, grasping inspiration from anywhere, for him to use as he pleases. His music, his style, his personas are influenced by centuries of culture. In his 1979 Saturday Night Live performance of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie dances with Dadaism, wearing a tubular costume inspired by Tristan Tzara’s play The Gas Heart. Another parallelism that Bowie draws with Dadaism is his use of cut-up writing, an idea he later redeveloped with the Verbalizer – a computer program which cuts up elaborate sentences and then places the words back together in random order. Bowie was no doubt also influenced by the technique popularised by William Burroughs, whom he met in the mid-seventies.
Amongst the notebook pages of cut-up writing are colourful sketches for stage designs and music videos, ideas for session photographs, occasional letters, drawings of outfit ideas, recording notes, and even a painting or two done by Bowie himself. There’s something sacred about being able to look through these profoundly intimate artefacts, like some sort of rare privilege. The lyrics to Ziggy Stardust scribbled on a fragile piece of paper torn from an old notebook make my heart skip a beat.
David Bowie put his creative energy and ambitious visions into everything with extreme dedication, as he collaborated with numerous artists to design his own album artwork, plan his own sets and create his extravagant costumes, and brought to life a series of different characters over the period of his career. In accordance with his early interest in theatre, David Bowie has always been a master of disguise, but whilst doing so has always managed to stay thoroughly true to himself. He reinvented himself through Major Tom, Pierrot, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, each time bringing to the stage something completely new, completely unexpected.
I wander past a section dedicated to Bowie’s repertoire of music videos with their respective outfits (the bright turquoise suit from Life on Mars, the extravagant Pierrot costume from Ashes to Ashes, and Tony Oursler’s freakish puppets from Where Are We Now?), and through a monochrome space dedicated to his Berlin era. Then I come to immense space; the walls of the dimly lit room leading up to an immeasurably high ceiling are adorned with a vast selection of costumes from Bowie’s entire career, alternating with screens on which David Bowie’s godlike face is being transmitted repeatedly. An enormous screen, twenty feet high takes over the far end of the room. As I walk into the space a live performance of Rock and Roll Suicide begins to play from powerful speakers surrounding the room. I remove my headphones for a more absolute experience. A crowd stands scattered around the room in awe and devotion, just like the audience in the 1974 video footage. The space, the overflow of costumes, the lavish visuals, the superabundance of creative energy, is entirely overwhelming. It is then that I realise just how amazing David Bowie really is, and how significant his influence is, not only on music but on our entire pop culture… I start to feel tears welling up in my eyes as the song edges closer and closer to OH NO LOVE, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. A shiver of pleasure runs down my spine and I begin to think what an honour it is to witness even just a small fraction of the man’s creation and to feel that this is still very much his time. Though, regrettably, I might never have the chance to see him perform. By this point his presence here starts to feel so very real, so physical and ubiquitous, that I nearly expect the mannequins around me to come to life. One of the words which I catch crossing my mind over and over is: EPIC. David Bowie is… epic. The exhibition is epic.
There’s one more room before the end of the exhibition, dedicated to Bowie’s acting career, complete with a screening of selected clips from all the films he appeared in since The Man Who Fell to Earth. Labyrinth is of course included, much to my delight, with the Goblin King’s riding crop and crystal ball also on display. The exhibition ends on a more classic note, with a white-walled room of photographs of Bowie, a homage to his stunning looks, as he proved to be the perfect subject, perfect in every possible way. It’s not only his creative genius, but the man’s beauty which can only be described as otherworldly. On the way out, The Jean Genie fades to silence in my ears. I stand by the exhibition exit for some time, speechless.
The V&A really put together an inspiring collection, a memorable experience which really makes you realise how brilliant Bowie is. I’ve always been fond of his music, but after David Bowie Is I have come to the conclusion that the man really is a genius. Defined by the culture of centuries, he helped define culture today, with his all-embracing creativity. This is a man who pushed himself as far as he could, never giving in to compromise, always responding to an insatiable urge to create. And what masterpieces he created. I believe David Bowie’s legacy will become the stuff of legend. I began this piece by saying that he is arguably one of the most influential artists of the past decades. But I’m willing to bet that, for many years to come, David Bowie will be recognised as one of the most influential artists of all time.
David Bowie is… a must see.
David Bowie Is is on at the V&A until August 11th. For information on how to get tickets: http://www.davidbowie.com/news/don-t-waste-your-cash-va-members-go-free-51526