Tuesday, 30 July 2013

David Bowie Is, V&A Museum

Yes, he certainly is. David Bowie - despite being a feature (in sound) of the Olympic Closing ceremony last year - has never been as present as he is now, with a new album backed with a squall of new videos, released over the period of this retrospective exhibition at the V&A. Set out, initially, as a classic chronological show, the contents quickly break down into an emporium of costume, influences in literature, theatre and fashion all bound in an ether of sound played on speakers in rooms and on the site-responsive headsets with which we are all issued.

A classic culture chameleon, it is impossible to pin down a definitive Bowie, though the museum have done a good job with the opening piece, a Kasui Yamamoto-designed bodysuit (right) that is at once preposterous, exotic and really cool. The full gamut of design is there, from Bowie's own precocious insistence on designing his immature bands' outfits to the famous looks of Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke and Diamond Dogs right through to Alexander McQueen's rotting-Britpop jacket.

There is a room showing excerpts of Bowie's film roles (a letter from Jim Henson dating from Labyrinth is touching) and a remarkable stage show of The Elephant Man in which Bowie played John Merrick without prosthetics. More exceptionally, there is footage of an aforethought unfilmed tour in 1974 when Brecht was on Bowie's mind. Yes, it's very spare...

Perhaps inevitably for a show about a man who dissolves himself into composite styles of his adoption, one of the most impressive exhibits was an original cardboard cut-out of Oscar Wilde, used by Peter Blake in his montage for the Sergeant Peppers album cover.

This is what is being passed on here, Bowie's sense of imagination and wonder; how he was drawn to all sorts of ideas, not to have and to hoard, but to reproduce in his own image. I got no sense throughout the show that Bowie's intent was one of trying to shock or subvert. Rather, he seems to be holding himself up, like an exhibit: "I think like this today. Is this cool? I think it is. It might even be worth something. What do yo think?"

It's not a perfect show. The portable sound packs could be temperamental (and no amount of thumping the stop button would turn it off!). The lighting design meant that it was often impossible to read wall-mounted notes - that and the crowds, at this, one of the busiest London exhibition I have been to. I missed there being a handout guide, not least as I like to make notes. Instead we were given a postcard telling us when we could see a relay in the cinema. Perhaps the museum had capitulated to the manifest impracticalities of marshalling so many through so small a space.

Bowie has the last word though, his irrepressible charisma drawing you in and through the exhibition despite niggling privations - rather like the character himself, pulling the dreaming adolescent through the torpor and minute concerns of middle class suburban life with songs and a sense of something altogether greater, wilder and more wonderful.

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