It was a two-hour wait in the sunshine and then, inside, among statues, pillars and carved gates for the David Bowie is… exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (soon to travel to Canada and—updated August 2014—ACMI in Melbourne).
David Bowie is a singular, metamorphosing musical figure and artist (I’ve written about my love for him before). But what’s fascinating about this exhibition is how it shows that genius is not outside of context, that Bowie’s work is (and his ‘characters’ are) a product of time, place, taste and influence, from mime to Marlene Dietrich, to Metropolis and man on the moon. The exhibition is a kind of ‘making of’ David Bowie, and continues to put his work in context throughout the different periods, from London to Berlin to New York, from Space Oddity to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and all the way through to The Next Day.
But it is also a spine-tingling celebration of his work, characters and Bowie himself, and of his collaborators, too (in music, video, costume, film, stage sets, and so much more). Some of the highlights, for me, were a lipstick-stained tissue, the synth used on Low and the other Berlin albums, a stage set design model from the Diamond Dogs tour, a cocaine spoon from 1974 (so strange to know that spoon was partly responsible for Station to Station, Bowie eating raw eggs and that Dick Cavett interview), and the huge original cover art for Scary Monsters (and I’m not even sure why it affected me so).
The item that made my heart leap most was the pastel blue suit Bowie wore in the ‘Life on Mars’ video. Other visitors will have other favourite exhibits, among the many outfits, pictures, letters, drafted and cut-up lyrics (the process behind these famous songs, before our eyes, hand-written and with scribbles and corrections!), abandoned songs, diary entries, album covers, rare photographs and videos. If you are a Bowie fan, like me, you may never want to leave.
The outfits show you how lean he is, though you know that from the videos and if you’ve seen him live. Lean, and taller than I remembered, from seeing him on stage. G thought he seemed shorter, though. We create our own Bowie myths.
Relatedly, there was quite a ‘death of the author’ focus on Bowie’s work being up to the audience to interpret, that the story shifts for each listener/viewer, and perhaps for each song and album, and then on each listen. But then there seems such confidence or just knowingness or planning (though not calculation, in a cold sense) behind Bowie’s works, from the albums to concerts to characters and even the way he engages with the public, that he manages, I think, to have a certain control over how he is overall perceived. Do you think maybe it is a little bit calculated? It’s something I admire, nonetheless. But it is true, and Bowie knows (as above), that alone in his or her bedroom the listener will interpret each track in a variety of ways which will produce a variety of emotional, intellectual, even creative responses. Or nothing at all.
The exhibition was busy, of course, but the layout worked well, a snaking design peppered with 3D ‘concert’ hubs, which had music mixed with info and often interview footage. The sound aspect was amazing. The headphones tuned into the sounds associated with the nearest exhibit. Looking around, I saw people tapping their feet or nodding, and sometimes I would sync in with them and share a nod or smile.
Just before the end there’s a large room with giant projections of live footage and, if you’re patient, many of Bowie’s costumes will peep out from behind the screen. They’re a little hard to see, and I think this was the only flaw with the exhibition. But you could hang out in that room all day, and many people were lolling about, bopping their heads and smiling.
There’s one section with five film clips playing and five corresponding carpet squares where you can move in and out of different songs. ‘Let’s Dance’ is pretty hard to resist.
[August 2014 update: David Bowie Is… coming to ACMI in Melbourne in 2015.]