David Bowie Is
In London we have all gone Bowie crazy! The critically acclaimed new album The Next Day entered the charts at number 1 and ticket presales for the show David Bowie Is at the Victoria & Albert Museum have broken all their records. As a Bowie devotee I was happy to queue to get in for 40 minutes with Diamond Dogs blasting in my ears building the anticipation.
The V&A has been bold, employing the revered theatre and rock show production company 59 Productions to create the displays and it is indeed a striking multimedia fest, a great White Duke Box significantly enhanced by the Sennheiser partnership that provides an amazing interactive audio guide.
The early part of the show concentrates on the transformation from Davie Jones to David Bowie. The 60’s were long years of struggle and lack of recognition for the boy from Bromley. The Campaign for Long Hair and ‘The Laughing Gnome’ failed to elevate our man to the stardom he so craved.
Bowie’s great break through was ‘Space Oddity’; this was released before, but significantly not played on radio until after the moon landings. The V&A seems to place great emphasis and have great faith in the various ‘coincidences ‘of Bowies career. Opportunist or just plain lucky, the moon landings and Major Tom were the start of a meteoric rise to fame as “the prettiest star”. They are also at great pains to point out that the opening of the show in the same week as album release is also a coincidence. I believe they didn’t know about the album but to call it a coincidence is daft. Bowie is, after all, the great PR man waiting in the sky, looking for promotion and he knows the reasons why.
The V&A have had free reign in the Bowie Archive and access to this carefully and mindfully preserved collection has enabled a show of considerable scale and magnitude – the ultimate revision. There is an amazing collection of costumes from Ziggy Stardust (Freddie Burretti ) and Aladdin Sane (Kansai Yamamoto) to the Pierrot outfit from the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video and many more. Reams of incredible neatly written lyrics and stage directions on foolscap, cover art work and original photos by Terry O’Neill, Mick Rock and Brian Duffy are included.
The climax of the show is a magnificent area with giant video walls showing mesmerising footage of some of Bowie’s live performances including, excitingly, the final moment of the final performance of Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith in 1973. So budget to spend plenty of time in here, it is fabulous.
Walking through the show Bowie’s enormous aesthetic and sartorial influence is apparent. He was the ultimate cultural maven, leading the hungry minds of his faithful to George Orwell, Berlin, mime, German Expressionism, Japanese aesthetics, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and William Burroughs. Once he had set something alight it rippled through popular culture; the show deals with his far-reaching cultural references by dangling books from the ceiling.
There is much mention of Bowie’s collaborators, but really the coverage of this is pretty token and this is where the exhibition fell a bit short for an insatiable fan like myself. It was as if Lou Reed never existed, and although he appears onstage, the great Mick Ronson is barely acknowledged, apart from one tiny little coke spoon, there is hardly a mention of the chemical inspirations of the Thin White Duke.
The highlight of the show for me were the two ‘Portraits of JO’, James Osterberg, AKA Iggy Pop. They aren’t the greatest but they capture the moments from which were born the Berlin Trilogy and two of the finest Iggy Pop albums, Lust For Life and The Idiot. The show could have done with more of this musical context.
Overall there isn’t enough context to demonstrate just how controversial, how different and what a powerful impact Bowie had over the years. Seventies Britain makes Austerity Britain look like a holiday camp. There was the 3 day week, power cuts, petrol rationing, and nothing to buy in the shops. Against this dour privation, Ziggy Stardust was an exotic, colourful fantasy. Only five years after the partial decriminalisation of gay sex, his sexual ambiguity and glam flamboyance was really sticking it to the previous generation. The impact was massive, the fans devoted, but too little is made of this and indeed Bowie himself, the great revisionist, plays it down these days as the stigma still affects sales in the USA.
Similarly the Berlin Room doesn’t really capture the paranoia and tension of The Cold War. Iggy Pop summed it up brilliantly when talking about that time: “Every time I remember anything about that period it’s always in grey. Bless them, they’re great, but nobody does grey quite like the Germans.” It is no coincidence that Bowie’s big areas of interest were German and Japanese aesthetics, less than 25 years after the Second World War was over. He wanted a reaction. He got it.
If you can get tickets, do. The artefacts are well worth seeing. There is also an excellent short film providing some context produced by the V&A (see above) and the merch is to die for and available online at the V&A’s website. There is something for every pocket – the rather marvellous exhibition poster at a mere £4 rather suited mine.
Artist Jeremy Deller once wrote a list of ideas for shows he would like to make happen and one was an idea for a Bowie exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London; recently in the Evening Standard, Deller said that now that the V&A has put on its show, he no longer needed to program his version. I completely disagree – this show is good but it isn’t the final word, there’s plenty of scope. Until such time as Deller manages to curate his Bowie show, you can indulge in more David Bowie with a program of talks, film celebrating Bowie in 1973, a pivotal time in his career and performance at Bowiefest at Glastonbury and Latitude festivals ithis summer in England,
Anna Hyde is the former marketing director of the ICA and owner of every single David Bowie album (except for the perma tan years) on vinyl.