by Suzy Menkes / The New York Times
18th March 2013
LONDON — David Bowie is the Thin White Duke in a giant digital image gyrating from floor to ceiling; David Bowie is a huge stuffed figure, creating a DaDa moment for “Saturday Night Live” in 1979 in the outfit he sketched and designed himself. David Bowie is the noble figure in a tattered Alexander McQueen Union Flag coat, staring into the distance on the 1997 album cover of “Earthlings.”
But who is the real David Bowie, now 66, the one who was not, in words printed on a panel at an exhibition here, “wearing a mask of his own face”?
The entire premise of “David Bowie Is,” which opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday and runs until Aug. 11, is found in the questions that are hung in air filled with the beat of music. The exhibition information comes through headphones that respond digitally to each display. So a section on the British artists Gilbert and George features the duo singing the 1932 song “Underneath the Arches” in 1970. And when a display shows images of the skinny young David Jones at 20 — before he became “Bowie” — the music is his early song “When I live my dream.”
The first section of the exhibition is chronological, putting the singer (or should that be songwriter/musician/performance artist?) into context. He was the unknown loser who brought out his first album on June 1, 1967, the same day the Beatles put out “Sergeant Pepper,” and then moved forward with his “Space Oddity,” a 1969 spoof of Stanley Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey.” And now he is releasing his first album in 10 years.
Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, the curators, have caught the slippery, ever-changing world of the glam rock star who became a hero for much more than one day. They took the enormous 75,000-piece archive offered by Mr. Bowie and used pieces to catch the flavor of time and place.
The surreal and daringly transsexual costume from 1973 of disembodied hands clutching at the body contrasts with the sharp tailoring that developed in the Thin White Duke of the late-1970s period.
“We wanted to get rid of chronology to create a kind of soup,” said Mr. Marsh, whose snippets of a life include Mr. Bowie’s cut-up words and a machine to whirl them around — a notion that ideas can be changed by chopping up language — and the wild and wonderful costumes for the 1973 “Aladdin Sane” tour by the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, who is caught on screen today reliving the moment.
The most striking thing about the show is that it is brought to life by technology and united in sound and vision in a way rarely seen in a museum. The sound specialist Sennheiser has created an immersive audio experience, so that there is an actual feeling of Ziggy Stardust up on screen “far above the world” while the music soars. The anthropomorphic image of the performer as half man, half beast for the “Diamond Dogs” tour in 1974 appears not just as a series of contact sheet photographs, but is brought to life by sound.
“It would have been almost unthinkable to do this exhibition without pushing the boundaries of how audio/visual is generally used,” said Ms. Broackes, explaining how Mr. Bowie has been renowned for futuristic techniques.
The exhibition is also a show for earthling fans. Boy George, on a private tour of the show, followed by the singer Jarvis Cocker, remarked: “I wanted to be with him, the instigator of new ideas, and the first time I heard him I felt: I was not alone.”
Many of the installations are aimed at the initiated. The fans of 50 years or those making discoveries in retrospect will be intrigued by the accompanying book “David Bowie Is Inside” that is far more than a fanzine, even if the first of the pages announces: “David Bowie is the Subject.”
The images alone, from a 1963 black and white photo of the stylish David Jones, posing with his saxophone for the Konrads, through the original lyrics — handwritten, scribbled and corrected — show how Mr. Bowie was from the start in absolute control.
But what about the man himself, whom the curators say they have never met? Is he holed up in his New York home? Will he make an Earth landing at one of the many London events this week? Is he already here, masked and unrecognizable? Or as an image of a profile taken by Lord Snowdon is labeled: “David Bowie is at any given moment in time a given moment in time.”