‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition at the V&A – thoughts before and after seeing the show

Musings before seeing the exhibition 

Well, for starters I haven’t seen this exhibition yet, but like everyone else in the country I am getting wild about going! This unmediated enthusiasm aside, how to talk about an exhibition you haven’t seen? … well, we all attend exhibitions with preconceived ideas (if we didn’t, we wouldn’t go in the first place), so I’m going to run with that.

David Bowie for me kindles memories of my childhood, especially images of driving in the car with my mum with ‘retro’ cassette tapes playing Bowie’s Greatest Hits on full blast. His is the soundtrack to my mum’s experiences whilst she was growing up – yet it is also something that she has passed onto me. (Though I have to admit that it really is just Bowie’s most famous songs that I’m familiar with). So like everyone else, I feel his music means something personal to me – even if it is just a drive home from school with the mother. I have also used Bowie’s LP covers as make-up inspiration, some of which have turned out better than others…

The idea of this exhibition is haunting me in more ways than one – Why has this exhibition come now? This has definitely caused a lot of stir and speculation. The Review Show had a whole fat chapter on it (I remember one guest remarking that it is better to have this exhibition on Bowie and a new album than to be faced with his obituary – which is a slightly extreme and desperate way of justifying its existence I thought; but nonetheless how true, what a gift). Though however tenuous a justification for the need of this exhibition, next thing we know, other ‘vintage’ artists are copying this potentially narcissistic trend and curating shows about themselves (Annie Lennox springs to mind). This suggests it must be a popular and positive phenomenon, even if just in a financial sense….  Certainly, tickets for Bowie’s exhibition at the V&A have sold out faster than for any other show they have put on. I tried to secure tickets not long after the show opened and to my horror all weekends had sold out and the first time I could go was July.

However, the questions that are really bugging me include: Should artists be allowed to celebrate themselves in this self-congratulating way? Has the respected position of the artist finally gone too far? Should past stars be allowed to make such a commercial comeback? Who are they doing it for?

On the other hand, although I do feel sceptical about the integrity of the exhibition and of Bowie’s comeback image as a whole (and anxious about the potential negative ways it could impact upon his musical legacy), I am slightly reassured by the fact that Bowie curated the show himself. This at least is the careful and respected Bowie that we all know – indeed, ever since he started out as a musician and artist he made sure he has been fully in control of his self-presentation, (musical) experiments and choreography.  Surely a retrospective and celebratory exhibition of an artist will be the most honest and tasteful if it is done by the artist him/herself? … Or is this cheating – does it make the handling of the subject matter too easy? Does a curator need more emotional distance from the subjects they present in order to be truly effective?

Due to the subjective nature of curating, there can never be satisfactory or universalised answers to these questions – maybe this is something Bowie has taken advantage of? Nevertheless, this mixing of art and music is certainly a cause for celebration. Maybe I should stop worrying and asking so many questions and just sit back to indulge in this arty orgy. I look forward to finally seeing this exhibition in the distance month of July.

David Bowie Is finally seen

We were greeted with a quote from Bowie stating no work of art is stable and assuring us that the audience brings its own meaning to the work, making art multiple. Already, the generosity and inclusivity characteristic of Bowie’s art and ways of working is brought out, making us as the viewer feel important and needed. This is reminiscent of Bowie’s electrifying presence on Top of the Pops when he performed ‘Star Man’ in 1972. A ‘reconstruction’ and film footage of this is included in the exhibition to startling effect helped by the aid of mirrors. The wonderful moment when he points straight at the camera is superbly recreated. 

However, I thought it was ironic that we were greeted by this message of inclusivity because upon entering the exhibition there were clear signs instructing no photography or sketching. The prohibition of sketching seemed particularly sad, as well as stifling to the creative audience. It is especially ironic considering Bowie himself used to take inspiration from many creative sources around him; one could imagine him sketching in a similar exhibition in his own peak of productivity.

On the other hand these fairly hostile signs could just be intended with the goodwill of easing the crowds and ensuring a smooth flow of visitors round the exhibition. Indeed even months after opening, the rooms were packed with people, forcing us all to shuffle round in distinct queues. However, the soundtrack music provided by the headphones helped to entertain us. Many people were bobbing along to the music, clearly enjoying themselves and recreating moments from their youth. Although this exhibition attempts to look seriously at Bowie’s influences or inspirations and map his creative output, one of the main focuses is certainly on pure entertainment and fun.

Interview clips and ‘artistic mutterings’ broke up the fragments of Bowie’s music. The interspersion of these clips helped to set the pace at which to proceed round the exhibition rooms. They acted as landmarks for where one should be at certain times because they coincided with film footage projected on the walls.

The ‘David Bowie Is’ statements litter every part of the exhibition. Sometimes they provide clear headings to certain sections, while often they act as provocative signposts of ambiguity and even bewilderment. They encapsulate both the surface fun of what Bowie stands for as well as being suggestive of his deeper vanity, obsession with fame, theatricality and performance. At best, they make us think for ourselves and interpret things as we see them. This is an important manifesto of Bowie’s because he believed in individuality and the potential for us all to be whatever we want to be.

The exhibition places great emphasis on the music, literature, politics, and fashion that inspired Bowie and allowed him to create his own distinctive image. Many creative and outrageously quirky outfits or costumes by the Japanese fashion designer Yamamoto are included. As this designer makes clothes that can be worn by either sex, his strong collaboration with Bowie enabled Bowie’s performative androgyny to be explored throughout this exhibition. Bowie definitely revolts against the ideas of authenticity in 60s rock by embracing the theatricality of the 70s through constant evocation of imagination, acting and play. In this exhibition there were also references to the novel ‘The Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, which inspired Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust. There were also references to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Peter Larkin, George Orwell, and poster poetry.

I thought Bowie had been uncovered (as well as endlessly idolized), yet the exhibition still managed to provide ‘new’ and unusual facts. For example, his first instrument was the saxophone and when he was a teenager he started The Royal Society For The Protection of Cruelty For Long Haired Men. There is an interview of him talking quite earnestly about this.

Two other discoveries particularly stuck out for me. Firstly one of Bowie’s pupils is permanently dilated as a consequence of being punched in the eye in a playground as a child. This helps explain, although not demystify, the ‘Earthling’ tour poster designed by Rex Ray which presents Bowie’s face in such harsh lighting that his skin is stretched starkly white against the alien blue of his unequally dilated eyes.

The second discovery for me was the fact that Bowie was also highly talented in other arts, such as painting, and even admitted that if he weren’t a musician he would have been a writer. His paintings on display are those made during his time in Germany when he was recovering from drugs. One self-portrait is reminiscence of ‘The Scream’, though uses more somber blue hues rather than Munch’s chaotic reds – perhaps to communicate the melancholic acceptance of his situation.

Bowie’s creativity does not stop there. He also created a computer programme, called Verbaliser programme, which he referred to as a ‘technological dream’. This programme would be fed sentences from the news or books. It would then mix different sources and words together to make new phrases or sentence combinations. This helped Bowie to think up new lyrics or song topics.

Due to the various different mediums, and presentations or representations of Bowie and all that inspired his work, the show is highly engaging. Although relatively lightweight as exhibitions go, it is intoxicating and exhilarating to be surrounded by such a multitude of creativity and visual as well as musical production.

The curators for this show were Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh


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