David Bowie Is at the V&A

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The ‘David Bowie Is’, currently on at the V&A until mid-August. I went to the late show on a Friday after work, a stone’s throw away from TLM HQ with my press pass and donned the cushy V&A headphones. Thinking the exhibition would be a minor excursion on the way home was a mistake. I was there for about three hours and when I left I still felt I needed another visit. It is a phenomenal show. Go and allow the whole day.

‘Rude people are rude people, not because I’m rude’

One of the first quotes I read, was typically Bowie – gnomic, self assured, trickster talk.

It was soon clear that this is a thorough exhibition of the multi faceted man. So much so, that it becomes a show (yes a show) about Bowie’s role as a proginator, as an arbiter, as a provocative, clownish smith of popular culture. He visits art galleries all around the world, reads lots of books, sees lots of films, goes to theatre, engages with the avant-garde, talks to people, and all of this inspiration – every influence and experience gets put into one big stew.

The exhibition is interactive, in typical V and A fashion, and suitably fitting for one of the most eclectic figures of pop culture. There are peepholes in the walls showing other worlds, videos, all laced and Bowie music. You simply can’t do this exhibition without the headphones. You are plugged in to the exhibition. Plugged in to Bowie.

Other figures surface in the exhibition, from all different creative spheres – those who have influenced Bowie. These include Andy Warhol, Dali, Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, J. G. Ballard (Crash), C. Isherwood, W. Burroughs, Brecht, Blake, Stanley Kubrick (notably A Clockwork Orange).

‘I wanted to be trendy, not a trend’

Most people probably know that Bowie has a permanently dilated pupil after being punched in the eye at school. The exhibition shows how literature, art and music are arrayed in the kaleidoscopic spectrum of Bowie’s skewed, magpie vision.

The most visually striking artefacts are the costumes, especially the quilted two-piece Starman suit, which Bowie described as ‘ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics!’

The exhibition is all about identity. It restates the fascination of Bowie as a cipher, a man who has adopted multiple personas. At the same time he inhabits them all from Ziggy Stardust to Hamlet. A mime video shows Bowie warning against the dangers of adopting another character. In the starburst of fame it is often impossible to take off the mask.

The exhibition space is immensely pleasing on the visual level. Books are suspended in mid-air. They are spread open like paper birds. Spotlights are angled to flood the floors and the ceilings. The headphones are triggered so that snatches of music flare as you move through different spaces. For a moment, as I sit down, everyone immediately looks more trendy in their headphones, as if they are yearning spaceman acolytes.

Bowie’s thoughts and ideas throng my head. At this moment I understand his quest for amplification. At this moment I see that all the cocaine and the sexual experimentation was a part of that. We are all bidden to dress up and express our sexual possibilities.

It is the spectator and not life, that art actually mirrors

Towards the end of the exhibition there is a freakishly real puppet which has a projection of Bowie’s face. We all get a kiss and a wink if we stand at the right angle. This is but the herald of a series of huge screens and mannequins. Bowie is all around you. You find yourself in a grand theatre show.

As Annie Lennox said:

‘Thank God for David Bowie who lifted us from the drabness of suburbia… thank you Darling’

by Heather Wells