DAVID BOWIE WAS
David Bowie is exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum,
22 March - 11 August 2013
|"I was walking/Down the high street/When I heard footsteps behind me..."|
"There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings." Bowie, 1995
The above quote opens the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition celebrating the career of David Robert Jones – a.k.a. Bowie – born 8 January 1947, the same day as Elvis Presley. In one of the displays, the two singers appear side by side on a 1973 magazine cover promoting “the story of rock and roll”, which, the publication believed, began with Presley’s raw rock and roll in the 1950s and ended with Bowie’s sci-fi soundscapes in the 1970s.
There’s a lot of truth in this claim. Bowie’s space rock mash up of Anthony Newley, the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, filtered through composers like Kurt Weill and sung by man who looked like he’d been beamed down from the future, was as far from rock and roll’s humble, bluesy beginnings as it was possible to get. Bowie turned pop music into an art form, using different characters, musical styles and, crucially, video to make, as he later said, “multiple readings” possible. That’s why he was the world’s most singular and sophisticated pop culture icon. Was – not is, as the V&A’s exhibition tells you at every opportunity.
Everything has its time. That the man who wrote a song inspired by the Space Race (which in the 1960s was the very definition of cutting edge) has a retrospective in a museum at all suggests he’s now part of history. There’s nothing wrong with that, when the effect Bowie had on music, fashion and gender politics between 1969 and 1983 was so transformative and far reaching. Appropriately, the exhibition charts his odyssey as a pop cultural pioneer in a well thought out combination of concise detail, elegant staging and multi-media spectacle.
It’s exhaustingly comprehensive, beginning with Bowie’s birth in Brixton and upbringing in post-World War II Bromley and ending with his 2013 comeback album The Next Day. You can’t fault the context-heavy presentation; the opening sections illustrate the influences that shaped the young David’s creative world view, from the mental illness in his mother’s side of the family, his flirtation with Buddhism to Anthony Newley’s surreal TV vehicle The Strange World of Gurney Slade. What’s striking throughout is how focused on his art Bowie always has been. He was as meticulous designing futuristic costumes for his early band Dave and the Bowmen as he would be storyboarding the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video in 1980, and his revealing hand written notes and drawings are one of the exhibition’s highlights.
|"We know Major Tom's a junkie..."|
(Image: Brian Duffy)
As you wander round, you listen to a soundtrack provided through your own set of headphones, the digital player synchronizing with whichever display you approach, so you can listen to the soundtracks to the videos for ‘Starman’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, and the rather disapproving voiceover on a Nationwide report about the Ziggy Stardust tour, in your own multi-media bubble. This is particularly effective with a display of television monitors that recalls one used by the alien Newton (played by Bowie) in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Stand on the relevant square mapped out on the floor and you are switched in to the video being played on the corresponding TV, be it ‘Jump they Say’ or ‘The Stars (Are out Tonight)’. It’s an interactive jukebox that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Bowie’s stage shows.
One benefit of making the effort to get to the V&A at opening time on a Wednesday morning is avoiding the crowds. I had to go back for a second look as on the Saturday I first went, it was so packed that it wasn’t possible to look at everything properly. This was particularly the case with the room showcasing Bowie’s Berlin period at 155 Haupstrasse and his collaborations with Brian Eno. Full of people patiently shuffling past the exhibits, you got no sense of how the displays fitted together. With the right amount of visitors, you could appreciate how the graphics showing Bowie’s creative map of Berlin integrated with a geographical map of the city, as well as how the ambient electronica of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger was inspired by the brooding monochrome streets of the frontline in the Cold War.
The endearing thing about Bowie is that when he does put a foot wrong he does it spectacularly, and the exhibition doesn’t shy away from that. Exhibit A: his 1969 short film The Mask. In an attempt to tell a story through mime, his awkward attempt to be the new Lindsay Kemp immediately calls to mind Kenny Everett’s hopeless comedy mime artist from his television show. Exhibit B: whoever compiled the clips for the room showcasing the Thin White Duke’s adventures on the silver screen was clearly struggling. Bowie playing Andy Warhol in a white wig in Basquiat looks just like David Bowie playing Andy Warhol in a white wig, and in the scene chosen from Labyrinth, he delivers a self parody that would make Stella Street’s ersatz Bowie Phil Cornwell proud. In The Prestige, the starman offers a Belgian accent via Bromley and Inspector Clouseau.
|"Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers..."|
(Image: Brian Duffy)
For me, the exhibition all made sense in the last-but-one-room, where tiered platforms of Bowie’s stage costumes are overlaid with huge gauze screens showing live footage. I was literally rooted to the spot and felt a chill down my spine at two spectacular, defining sequences. The first was from Top of the Pops in 1973 and featured a live version of ‘The Jean Genie’. Firstly, in those days playing live on the BBC’s premier pop show was virtually unheard of; secondly, seeing four gender-blurring sci-fi dandies bashing out proto punk riffs, to an audience seemingly made up of wide-eyed, innocent 16 year-olds, underlined how much of a gulf there was between Bowie’s aesthetic vision and the moribund England of the early 1970s. It was particularly effective when the costumes behind the screen were back-lit in a random sequence to ‘The Jean Genie’’s strutting beat; with the video and the music, this display summed up what a towering, original presence Bowie was.
The second sequence brings us back to how powerful the idea of multiple readings can be. I missed the opening credits for the film of Bowie’s performing ‘Heroes’ with a no-frills stage set and large backing band at some point in the 2000s. As the song built and built, the camera kept cutting to the audience to show, unusually, spectators mainly made up New York police and fire-fighters. With a shock I suddenly realised that the performance was from a benefit show put on for the emergency crews who attended 9/11. With that knowledge, ‘Heroes’ becomes a completely different song, but the lyrics fitted the circumstances perfectly. It says a lot about Bowie the man that he would do something as emotive as this while turning down the offer to turn the song into an obvious anthem at the 2012 Olympics. Behind all the multi-media games, he clearly has a beating and committed heart.
From there, it was into the final room for a look at the people Bowie has influenced, in a roll-call that includes Michael Clark and Kate Moss, before a browse through the V&A shop which stocks a veritable library of books about Bowie, but only his most recent album. Considering how literate his music is, perhaps that’s as it should be.
The pop and rock landscape, and the world in general to some extent, has largely been remade by the way Bowie conducted the first, trail blazing phase of his career, which is maybe why he’s not as relevant today as he once was; to coin a phase, his work here is done. He can go on releasing albums, like this year’s best-for-a-long-time The Next Day, but in doing so he’s just another veteran rock musician enjoying the dignified twilight of his vocation. Fittingly, David Bowie is reminds us why he was so important and how far, far ahead of his time he really was.
If you haven’t already been, go along to the V&A and watch that man – but avoid Saturdays if possible.