18th March 2013
The V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition is already a hit before it opens to the public on Saturday, but how good is it? We sent a panel of guest reviewers for a special preview
In the taxi on the way to the V&A, I’m surprised to have what I can only describe as pre-show butterflies. It’s not my exhibition, so why the jangling nerves?
Bowie is who I am: I was fired up by Ziggy, my soul was stirred by his Young Americans, and my sense of cool was dictated by his Thin White Duke. He held my hand creatively throughout the Seventies and guided me to my choices in the following decade [in Spandau Ballet]. I’m not responsible for this show, but it is responsible to me, to my youth, to all the things that I became because of this man, and I’m desperate not to have that destroyed.
To us “pilgrims” it’s the equivalent of visiting a church full of religious artefacts, seeing a small, splintered piece of the cross and swooning at its proximity. I feared a line of cold mannequins fading off into David’s more difficult mid-Eighties period and beyond, but I was wrong.
Apart from the opening room — a superbly designed video and audio installation reflecting the artist’s formative years, and the zeitgeist that delivered him — the main two halls ignore chronology and instead present the entire range of Bowie’s creative output in a whirligig of costumes, sketches, references, artwork, memorabilia, and film. Everywhere you look is Bowie gold dust.
But what this meticulously curated show seems to reveal is that Bowie’s art has always been taking other people’s more difficult ideas and popularising them, siphoning them into sexier, groovier concepts. By projecting them through his own characterisations he becomes simultaneously the artist and the canvas.
Bowie’s choice not to visit his own retrospective is, I’m sure, as carefully considered as everything else he’s ever done. What is present though, is his charisma, in evidence most strongly in the Super 8 film of him as an unknown teenage Mod, caught smiling on camera while walking near Soho, his destiny seemingly assured.
It’s an exhibition that is thrilling and sensorial, with sound and vision working together to immerse or — dare I say — baptise you, in Bowieworld. But it’s not, I realised, about one man, it’s about all of us; all of us who invested so much and learned so much at his tutelage. As I left I thought about what the show’s open-ended title implied: David Bowie Is… you.
When I was growing up, David Bowie was like the patron saint of the music scene, and then he disappeared for a while and I feel that now he’s back like a benign force floating above us.
I’m getting into the new album. Recycling the sleeve of the “Heroes” album with The Next Day stuck over the front of it says interesting things about looking back. Maybe it’s saying that the latest idea to go forward is that you have to go back — that’s kind of what’s happening in culture at the moment.
Bowie’s been making music for more than 40 years and he’s one of the greatest stage performers so it’s good that the V&A shows some of that, with some rare concert footage on big projection screens and costumes incorporated into that section. There’s a quote included, saying something about whenever he goes on stage there’s got to be some element of theatre and performance about it; with Pulp it wasn’t the same thing with personas but we were always very aware of making a concert into an event. I’m sure Bowie was an influence in that way.
The amount of interest this exhibition is garnering lets you know his influence is vast. He had a very normal name — David Jones — and in a way he was a very typical person of his era, and yet he turned himself into a unique creature. The other thing that really comes through is how hands-on he’s always been. It is amazing to see that it seems he has never ever thrown anything away in his life. There are bits of paper from when he was 15 with lyrics and ideas for stage costumes written down — it’s nice to see his handwriting. They’ll have difficulty getting people out of this show because there’s a hell of a lot to see. I could have spent hours in there.
For me the videos that work best are the ones that are very simple, like the one for Life on Mars, which is basically just him singing with that powder blue suit on. I wouldn’t be able to get in his suits. I am jealous of his 26-inch waist [as shown in a book of measurements in the exhibition] — that is thin.
I interviewed him about smoking once about 16 years ago for the Big Issue. Then just last April, I was doing a thing in New York with the Michael Clark dance company at the Whitney Museum and he came to see that. I had to leave straight after the performance. Apparently I walked out the room and about 45 seconds after I left he walked into to say hello and I missed him. That was a shame.
The main thing that will impress people as they go round the V&A is the sheer volume of stuff that Bowie has done, it made me feel very lazy. He made a real impact on our culture: he brought a lot of those quite subversive and alternative ideas right into people’s living rooms. It’s an important exhibition; I think it will stick in people’s minds for a long time. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
As told to Andre Paine
My older brother Richard was the Bowie fan and the first album I heard was The Man Who Sold the World. I think as Bowie got more camp my brother moved onto The Faces and Alice Cooper; I got Bowie and I went to see Ziggy Stardust at Lewisham Odeon. Looking at the Freddie Buretti outfit [as featured on the Top of the Pops Starman 1972 performance] in the V&A has the same effect on me today.
I remember the cobweb bodysuit, on show, from The 1980 Floor Show with Marianne Faithfull — we tried to make something like that at the time. Those palm tree heels [from the Ziggy Stardust tour] are my favourite, he wore them on Russell Harty’s TV show. That was the beginning of my dressing up; the first time I saw Bowie I realised: I’m not the only person who’s a weirdo in the middle of nowhere.
I grew up in Eltham and used to go and stand outside his house, Haddon Hall [in Beckenham]. We even tried to steal washing off the line. I’d go and hang out with all these older fans at the Wimpy Bar. I tried to have the Ziggy haircut and mine ended up looking like Dave Hill from Slade because my aunt cut it for me.
I’ve always been a fan and I’ve met Bowie a few times. We had dinner in 2004 in New York and I kind of felt like a fan then, sitting there going “Oh my God”. He’s very slight, he’s got small feet that fit into girls’ shoes. Though my thing was a bit more androgynous; Bowie was more sexual, I think.
The first time I ever spoke to him was at Le Beat Route in Greek Street. It would have been around the time of Ashes to Ashes, in 1980, I remember, because he’d also come to the Blitz Club to audition us for the video and I never made the cut. I managed to get near him and he said, “You look like my friend Klaus Nomi [theatrical German singer]”. I found out about a lot of people through Bowie: Bob Dylan — from Song for Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Lindsay Kemp [legendary choreographer and Bowie’s mime teacher].
You always think of Bowie as being effortlessly cool, but there’s funny footage in the exhibition of him talking about long hair [in 1964, the 17-year-old Bowie formed the Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Long-Haired Men], which dispels a little bit of the myth.
I still go back to the early material. I love When I Live My Dream — it’s so like Anthony Newley — but Hunky Dory  is my favourite album, it’s the most quirky. Quicksand is the song I play the most because it’s so dramatic.
I got [the new single], Where Are We Now, at 6.30 in the morning because I got a message saying, “Bowie’s got a record out!” I thought it was really beautiful and the album’s fantastic — I love Dirty Boys, I’d Rather Be High.
Bowie’s timing has always been spectacular — sometimes he got it wrong, but he got it more right than your average pop star.
As told to Andre Paine
I crashed into Bowie on the dance floor of The Blitz Club in 1979. His presence was electric and the V&A’s David Bowie Is does its best to emanate that energy.
The music, the clothes, the history, the influences and, in turn, the influenced. He borrowed from the best and attached himself closely to them. Like Iggy, and Lil Richard before him, they popped the Gene Genius out of the bottle, allowing David Bowie in all his guises to bestow on us wishes we never even knew we had.
His inspiration runs deep whether you are aware of it or not, and this exhibition shows the undeniable resonance. [Since lauching my first fashion collection in 1981] I’ve never set out to make Bowie-esque garments — I’m on my own timeline travels, but an unexpected image of myself in one of my catsuits briefly flashing up on a multiscreen in the final room assured me that I was indeed one of many touched by his vision.
The staggering beauty of design, execution, cut and care of Yamamoto’s capes and jumpsuits could easily lead me to say that these and the simply cut but perfect Freddie Buretti two-pieces steal the show, but it’s the total body of work on display that reels us in. This exhibition will leave a lasting impression on both those familiar with Bowie’s work and the few who may never have encountered the vast explosion of ideas, innovation and future thinking of this individual.
I like to think of myself as one of Bowie’s children, not Margaret Thatcher’s, so I approached this show with some excitement and trepidation.
The curators haven’t attempted to make it chronological, which is the right move, though the first rooms do root you in his early restless world, but then once you’re comfortable with that, it loosens up.
The early material, though — like the blazer that he has customised with felt pen — is a highlight, as are the fantasy teenage drawings that I don’t think have ever been seen before . This is pre-history almost, where he is thrashing around and trying to make sense of culture and his place within it.
A show like this has to be fantastical, there has to be an element of surprise and drama, and a way of enlivening static objects. There will be Bowie fans who come here for nostalgia, basically, but if you are 17 it will be very exciting as it’s about influence and being inspired by things as much as it is about Bowie: that world of books, films and art that are so important to you when you are growing up.
A lot of his albums, especially the early concept albums, are structured like musicals. Ziggy Stardust is a futuristic Dickensian character who goes on an incredible journey up to possibly his death or resurrection with the closing song, Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The scene is set by the first song on that album, Five Years, which says “this is the story, this is the atmospherics”.
I love the Diamond Dogs storyboards [for a film that was never made, based in Hunger City, the fictional setting for the album] and all the material relating to the Diamond Dogs tour  and the progression it revealed. When you look at the [staging and production of the 1972-73] Ziggy Stardust tour there is nothing — maybe a few banners with a symbol — it’s all quite home-made. But later you see a professionalisation, which says something of Bowie’s ambition not just for himself but also for rock music, as a new art form. He’s one of the first who understood that potential.
In 1994, I made a series of posters of imaginary exhibitions that I would like to see or that I could curate about popular music, one was a David Bowie show called Golden Years 1970-80 at the ICA. Now the V&A has done a Bowie show, and it has done a pretty good job, I don’t have to do mine.
As told to Ben Luke