David Bowie is indubitably one of the most influential artists of recent times. Across a career spanning some fifty years, he has repeatedly changed the way we look at the world; adjusted the face of fashion; altered the future of music forever. And so when on his 66th birthday Bowie released his first new song in ten years, it made for an unquestionably special moment. Bowie was back, and just as his latest LP The Next Day made for one of the most anticipated albums of this year thus far, the V&A’s David Bowie is is probably one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year and quite rightly so, for the exhibition exceeds absolutely every expectation.
Upon entrance, I’m handed an audio guide although it’s an audio guide unlike any other I’ve held, or heard from before. The V&A teamed up with Sennheiser to create what they call a ’3D sound experience’ and so this technological marvel responds to the space you’re standing in as Bowie’s musical work rather appropriately accompanies you through the exhibition. As such, we become acquainted with a show comprised of both Sound And Vision, and so much more besides.
The ambitious retrospective voyage begins with Bowie’s Tokyo Pop striped vinyl bodysuit submerged in a dramatic lighting as the inimitable riff drawn from Rebel Rebel plays on 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 about which the exhibition orbits, though music and fashion are but a fraction of the thematic content 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 his early years, providing a context in which to place the artist’s initial approach to composition when, aged fifteen, he formed his first band the Konrads. The contextual backdrop is that of London’s music scene of the ’60s, here represented by the series of old gig posters and monochrome photographs of musicians which line the walls alongside fragments of Bowie’s early life – miscellaneous objects including an old edition of The Oxford Companion to Music from which he taught himself to write music. it sits in a glass receptacle like a Bible, or a cornerstone immortalised in time. Glaring above all these various mementos and written in gaudy red neon lighting, “David Bowie is crossing the border.” It’s a statement which might well refer to the young David Jones changing his name to Bowie but to me, “the border” represents every one that ever did exist. For when confronted with boundaries and borderlines, he has effortlessly negotiated every one with an elegant lunge of his long legs. He always has, and doubtless always will.
Another caption informs of Bowie’s birth in Brixton back in January of 1947, though the remainder of the exhibition appears to prove otherwise, as I become increasingly convinced that the man really did fall to Earth from some distant planet.
I walk along, gawping at handwritten music scores dating back to ’67 and old books which once belonged to The Thin White Duke. Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners among others, as his voice plays soft 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 an absolute beginning, he appears to have demonstrated an interest in practically each and every art form, whether that be film or literature; painting or photography; theatre or fashion, as he draws inspiration from an infinity of sources to absorb the culture about him like a glamorous sponge.
Throughout the exhibition can be found battered copies of various books – Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – and film posters. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Blue Angel, Cabaret, A Clockwork Orange and of course Metropolis. One of Bowie’s incredible virtues is his ability to forever be in step with the contemporary, yet also to always be one step ahead.
In December 1968, the first ever colour photograph of the Earth seen from space was published. Simultaneously, Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released and together, these circumstances became a major influence on Bowie’s music. In July of the following year, Space Oddity was released as a single to coincide with the first moon landing. Bowie thus made his breakthrough, when the BBC chose the song to soundtrack the televised escapades of Apollo 11. His career skyrocketed and here, in a dimly lit room, the original video to Space Oddity plays side by side with Bowie’s themed jumpsuit and the guitar chords scribbled in pen on a sheet of scored paper, his ink smudged by water droplets decades old. It’s almost hard to believe that they’re the real deal for just like the photo of our planet from space these objects; his memories are pieces of our history. They are determinate moments in one man’s life, which today continue to influence thousands of people across the world.
Bowie’s fascination with dystopian futures and science fiction is strongly present throughout the early ’70s, and this is signalled by the recordings 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 from the wall – handwritten lyrics to Oh! You Pretty Things, Five Years, and Starman. I read those of the lattermost as the song plays from my audio guide, my eyes tracing the words as he sings them. I imagine his pen gliding across the paper, and the thought process guiding it. It really is an extraordinary sensation to find yourself face-to-face with these written verses and to be able to contemplate Bowie’s slightly childish handwriting, tiny circles dotted above his i’s. It’s beautiful. I’m captivated; hypnotised, even both by the words and the music and all of a sudden, I torn around and my field of vision is overwhelmed with blinding lights and myriad mirrors reflecting each other, and large screens hanging from the ceiling, and overlapping projections beamed onto surfaces, and books dangling over flashy garments. Amidst this orgiastic sensorial extravaganza stands Bowie’s Starman suit – the A Clockwork Orange-inspired outfit which Bowie describes as “ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics” which was seen on the infamous Top of the Pops broadcast of ’72. Another unforgettable, and ultimately decisive moment in music history.
A caption on the wall then 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, as he himself became an unofficial spokesperson for the outcasts; a prophet for the outsiders. He was, and indeed still continues to be the epitome of self-expression.
I wander into a large space filled with costumes, books and projections as a montage of songs plays overhead, flooding the room and luring us in. The thing about this exhibition is that there is so much to take in, though the way in which the space is so beautifully structured makes me think that this is exactly what goes on in David’s head. This is where all the magic happens – where it all began, and how it came to life. And it’s ineffably perfect. Even two hours later, I quite frankly felt exhausted but fatigued by that positive sort of exhaustion – exertion to leave you feeling closer to a spiritual sort of ecstasy.
Bowie says of his lyrics: “I like the idea that they’re vehicles for other people to interpret or use as they will” which is essentially what he did with everything he came across. From the silver screen to the canvases of Andy Warhol; fashion to Die Brücke; literature to Japanese Kabuki, he would grasp and grapple with inspiration from absolutely anywhere to use as he pleases. His music, style and personae are all influenced by centuries of steadfast culture: in his ’79 Saturday Night Live performance of The Man Who Sold The World he dances with Dadaism, wearing a tubular costume inspired by Tristan Tzara’s play, The Gas Heart. Another parallel he draws with Dada resides in his use of cut-up writing – an idea he later redeveloped with The Verbaliser – a computer program which lacerates elaborate sentences and then glues the words back together in a wilfully random order. Bowie was no doubt also influenced by the cut and paste technique popularised by William Burroughs, with whom he met in the mid-seventies.
Amongst notebook pages containing these slashed words can also be found colourful sketches for stage designs and music videos, ideas for session photographs, the occasional letter, drawings of outfit ideas, recording notes, and even a painting or two done with his own fair hands. There’s something sacred about being able to look through these profoundly intimate artefacts – a rare privilege – and the lyrics to Ziggy Stardust scribbled on a fragile piece of paper torn from an old pad make my heart skip a beat.
For Bowie put his creative energy and audacious vision into everything with extreme, even unerring dedication as he collaborated with numerous artists to design his own album artwork, plan his own sets, and create such lavish costumes. That he brought to life a series of differing, and so too disparate characters over the course of his career is testament to this. And, in accordance with his early interest in theatre, Bowie has always been a master of disguise yet while doing so, he has managed to stay thoroughly true to himself always. He merely reinvented himself through Major Tom, Pierrot, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, as he would bring to the stage something entirely new and utterly unexpected with his every reincarnation.
I then amble past a section dedicated to Bowie’s vast repertoire of music videos, each of which is escorted by its respective outfit – 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 monochromic space dedicated to his Berlin era. We then arrive in an immense expanse, the walls of the room leading up to an immeasurably high ceiling adorned with an again extensive array of attire interspersed with screens onto which are projected reflections of his godlike features which are transmitted repeatedly. An enormous screen some twenty feet high hijacks the far end. As I approach, a live performance of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide begins to boom from powerful speakers dotted about the place. I remove my headphones for a more absolute experience, as the crowd diffuses throughout the room. We’re transfixed in awe and devotion, just like those spectators shown in the ’74 footage. The space, the overflow of costumery; the rich visuals; the superabundance of creative energy renders it once more entirely overwhelming. It is then and only then that I realise just how amazing David Bowie really is, and how significant his influence has been – not only with regard to music, but so too to the entirety of pop culture. I start to feel tears welling up in my eyes as the song edges forever closer to those immortal lyrics: “Oh no love! You’re not alone.” A shiver of pleasure runs down my spine, and I begin to consider what an honour it is to witness even a small fraction of his creation, and to feel that this is still very much his time. Regrettably, I may never have the opportunity to witness him perform though by this point, his presence 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; David Bowie is epic.
There’s only one more room before it is all to end which, dedicated to his acting career, comes replete with a screening of select clips from his every film 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 then ends on a perhaps more classic note, with a white-walled room of Bowie photographs – an homage to his stunning looks, as he proves himself to be the perfect subject. Perfect in every possible way, and a reminder that it’s not only his creative genius but so too his humanly beauty which can only be described as otherworldly. On the way out, The Jean Genie fades to silence in my ears although I stand speechless by the exit of the exhibition for some time to come.
The V&A really have compiled an inspiring collection – a thoroughly memorable experience which really makes you realise how brilliant Bowie truly is. I’ve always been particularly fond of his music, but after David Bowie is I’ve come to the conclusion that he really does belong to a rare breed of genius. Defined by centuries of culture, he continues to define the culture of today with his all-embracing creativity. Here we have a man who ceaselessly pushed himself as far as he could, never giving in to compromise while always responding to that insatiable urge to create and compel. And what nonpareil masterpieces he did create.
I began this piece by stating that he is one of the most influential artists of recent times, but I’d be willing to bet that henceforth, he shall be recognised as one of the most influential artists of all-time. David Bowie is a must-see.
David Bowie is runs until August 11th at the Victoria and Albert Museum.