by Sarah Crompton / Telegraph
19th March 2013
In the new retrospective exhibition David Bowie is, the V&A has provided a grand stage for an inspirational artist who reshaped a generation, says Sarah Crompton.
In the opening room of the V&A’s new exhibition “David Bowie is”, there is a four-second clip of film of a 17-year-old Bowie striding through the streets of Soho. The sun is shining, and as he catches sight of the camera he turns his bright blond head and smiles before vanishing from sight.
The film was found on someone’s old Super 8 camera. The amateur cameraman had been filming his wife in the Soho sunlight; it was quite by chance that he caught the nascent superstar. What is extraordinary is how, even then, Bowie behaves like the idol he was to become. If a camera is running, it must want to catch him in its lens.
The mystery of David Bowie, the confidence that inspired a quiet boy from Bromley to become one of the most significant artists of his generation, hangs quietly over this entire show. But there is a tiny clue to it when he confesses that he was always reading books that were “far above my head” – because he liked to tuck them in his pocket on the commuter train from Bromley to his job in an advertising agency in central London, so he would “look deep” to his fellow travellers.
As he describes this, in the jaunty south London tones that have never left him, despite the fact that he hasn’t lived in Britain since 1974, you realise how this show-off’s desire for self-improvement affected not only his own work, but the lives of all of those who came to love him.
As Siouxsie Sioux, of Banshees fame, remarks in the catalogue: “David Bowie comes with a reading list.” He was the professor of suburbia. He guided those of us who were sitting in our bedrooms doing our homework like good children into new and uncharted fields, not just on the page but in the sense of possibility of the world at large.
This vibrant, thought-provoking show constantly reminds us how Bowie’s sense of transgressive discovery was beamed into the most ordinary places. When he was wearing Ziggy Stardust’s extraordinary red leather leotard, embossed with woodland creatures and designed by Kansai Yamamoto, the venues he was playing were the Bridlington Town Hall and Torquay. “The clever thing was to break the rules and stay alive at the same time” : the words from Orwell’s 1984 run down the side of a volume on display, a signpost to Bowie’s own philosophy.
Just how dangerous he seemed comes over in a report from the BBC’s Nationwide in 1973, played through a monitor. “It’s a sign of the times that a man with a painted face and carefully painted fingernails can inspire adoration from girls aged between 14 and 20,” says Bernard Falk, wonderingly, as Bowie struts his stuff in short white silk kimono and lustrous red hair.
Screens showing live performances and silhouettes of costumes
That was how we children of suburban Britain experienced our hero. It took us a bit to see him in the flesh (our parents didn’t necessarily think he was suitable), but he could still make an impact via the small screen. One of the most thrilling epiphanies here is to see the quilted Freddie Burretti two-piece Ziggy Stardust suit in red, gold and blue that Bowie wore on his legendary appearance on Top of the Pops to sing “Star Man” in July 1972. The costume is shown in front of him singing, blue guitar slung around his shoulder, a strange creature in our world. It seems as fresh now as it did then; the start of everything.
The V&A exhibition feels full of love. Its exhibits are displayed with great verve and a kind of passion, as if everyone involved didn’t want to let their elusive subject down. It was planned long before anyone had any idea that Bowie was about to release a new album at the age of 66 – though exhibits from The Next Day, including the disturbing two-headed puppet that featured in the video of “Where are We Now?” have been quickly incorporated.
With full access to the David Bowie Archive (where he clearly kept more or less everything from about 1972 onwards) and the ability to supplement from its own collection and occasional borrowings, the exhibition successfully makes you feel you have entered the creative mind of an astonishing cultural icon, a figure whose influence and significance far exceeds his notional role as rock god.
Outfits from the “Heroes” tour 1978 at ‘David Bowie is’
As Geoffrey Marsh, one of the co-curators, says, this makes him the perfect subject for an exhibition at the V&A: he is the first musical figure to be examined on such a scale. “This museum was set up to show how art and design work, to reveal the process. Although there have been a huge number of books about Bowie, they are by rock journalists and may be not of interest to the general public. The reason he is interesting is that he is more than a rock star.”
All the exhibits, presented using cutting edge technology by – among others – the team behind the video projection at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, add to that sense of a fertile intelligence, changing constantly, shaping the world.
You can see how firmly Bowie was in charge of everything he did. There’s a tiny sketch that later becomes the album cover for Diamond Dogs, and the swirling, confidently drawn story-boards that take you through his thinking for a musical on the same theme. There is a handwritten lighting plan for the Station to Station tour, so detailed that you pity the lighting designer who had to enact it. There is a crayon-drawn cover for the single of “Ashes to Ashes” which was exactly replicated in the finished product.
And then there are the lyrics – loads of them, at first in the neat joined-up writing of his youth, which becomes more scrawled as he grows older, or typed as he experiments with the William Burroughs cut-up method. Or scrawled and cut up. Written on notepaper, on graph paper, on scraps, each with revealing crossings out and amendations as he struggles to make exactly the point he wants. In “Heroes” for example, the line “and we kissed as though nothing could fall” was originally “and you felt called”, which doesn’t have quite the same impact.
To a Bowie fan, these pieces of paper, every drawing, every tiny instruction to his costume designer (a book of measurements from the Ziggy years reveals a 26 and a half inch waist) have the power of holy relics. But as Howard Goodall explains in an excellent catalogue essay (and audio commentary), “all of these colourful manifestations of his imagination we owe to the fact of his astonishing output as a composer-producer”.
Brian Eno’s portable Synth in ‘David Bowie is’ at the V&A
He goes on to talk about the way that, like many great composers, Bowie was an absorber rather than an innovator. He took ideas and redefined them, so they emerged as something powerfully significant in their own right. In this way, for example, Low, 1977’s collaboration with Brian Eno “redefined what a pop album might be” – and for most of its listeners acted as a mainstream introduction to minimalism.
This sense of Bowie’s magpie mind, reacting to the world around him and transforming it into something new and shiny, permeates the exhibition. It takes me back to the idea of him as a guru to his fans, inspiring us to go out and find new inspirations, new ideas. The loincloth he wore to perform as John Merrick, the Elephant Man, on the Broadway stage may not mean much to many people, but to me it represents an early encounter with American theatre; the tiny film of him performing as a mime, reminds me that it was through Bowie that I discovered Lindsay Kemp and an entire world of performance art. The “black and white room” takes me to Berlin, to Kurt Weill, and German Expressionism (refracted here in Bowie’s portrait of Iggy Pop, another vital collaborator.)
Screens showing live performances at ‘David Bowie is’
Then, in the final room, you encounter the apotheosis of Bowie, the musician. On huge screens, five times life sized, lost film of legendary performances plays, with the costumes that he wore glittering through the gauze. There’s some unseen footage with Kemp, lost passages from the Diamond Dogs tour, the famous DA Pennebaker film of Ziggy’s final farewell. And, from three moments of his career, three versions of “Heroes”, which you can listen to simultaneously; as you walk round the installation the soundtrack in your ears changes.
The sheer grandeur brought tears to my eyes. I felt as I felt when I first saw Bowie live – simply glad to be in the same building as a man who could make music like this. If you are not a Bowie fan, you might not cry. But I can’t believe you will walk away from this stunning exhibition without understanding a little of why he inspired those of us who love him.