David Bowie Is, Victoria & Albert Museum

by Howard Male / Metro

19th March 2013

With his vintage Rolls in 1973 Photo: PA

How much more of a melancholy experience walking round this exhibition would have been if its subject hadn’t just sprung a new album on us that’s so suffused with energy and life. It’s meant that the exhibition’s title – David Bowie Is – feels like a genuine statement of fact rather than just wishful thinking, at least in the literal sense. However, metaphorically speaking, the title would have still held since Bowie’s influence as a multifaceted creation is still everywhere in our culture. There is much – in fact almost too much – to enjoy in this show. But let’s get a couple of minor quibbles out the way first.

Playing on the “Is” theme there are some very clunky attempts at enigmatic pronouncements on one or two walls: “David Bowie is forgetting himself”; “David Bowie is getting himself out of the way”. Another wall boasts some effusive but essentially empty quotes from the likes of George Michael, Annie Lennox and Tony Parsons. The old 1950s/60s paperbacks of Burroughs, Burgess, Kafka etc that dangle from the ceiling of another room feel like a slightly desperate attempt to jazz things up. Putting such objects in glass cases still works for me. But let’s not linger on minor blemishes when there’s so much to keep our eyes busy.

More than 60 svelte mannequins were no doubt chuffed to be donning some of the most iconic outfits of the 20th-century (although obviously the ones in the Ziggy (see photo below) and Thin White Duke togs must be looking down their noses at the ones lumbered with Glass Spider or Let’s Dance outfits. One could feel as overwhelmed as a booze-addled Thomas Jerome Newton in front of his multiple TVs on entering the main exhibition space. Huge banks of screens show live footage of the great man juxtaposed to yet more splendidly attired mannequins. In fact there are screens everywhere, some showing the classic videos, others, snippets of interview. There’s even some rare silent footage of a Hunky Dory-period Bowie with Andy Warhol.

Given the hi-tech spectacle of much of the exhibition it feels odd to report that its most affecting pieces are decidedly modest in scale. From the early years there are the song lyrics written on yellowing lined notepaper giving us a unique insight into the development of some very familiar song lyrics. In “Five Years”, the visually evocative line “I saw boys, toys, electric irons and TVs” was originally the more prosaic, “I saw boys, toys and programmes on TV.” Of course the temptation is to carry on in this vein, describing my gluttonous lapping up of felt-tip pen drawings for a planned Diamond Dogs film, some of the actual cut-ups he used on the album ‘Heroes’, the original biro-scrawled back cover image for Hunky Dory, and so on. There’s even a couple of Bowie’s own perfectly respectable expressionistic oil paintings (the one of Iggy Pop is superb). And it would be fun to extrapolate at length about the concept of the religious relic in relation to exhibit No7; Tissue Blotted With Bowie’s Lipstick.

So, moving swiftly to The Next Day, we come to my other favourite piece in the show; the cutely sinister two-headed rag-doll figure from the recent “Where Are We Now?” video (see below). It’s clearly a last-minute addition as there’s no image of it in the catalogue. It’s also noteworthy that the face projected onto the second canvas head is no longer director Tony Ousler’s wife, Jacqueline Humphries. It’s a second Bowie. A second Bowie? What are we to read into this change? Oh it’s probably just Mr Jones having a wry smile. After all, the show is teeming with bloody Bowies. But you’ll have your own take on it. For in the words of the man himself – writ large in the entrance hall like a pronouncement from anti-Big Brother: “There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”

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