David Bowie is ... Reviewed

Ziggy?  Player or Played?  Dene October discovers why an exhibition at London's V&A Museum asks you to make up your own mind

‘David Bowie is’ … anyone’s guess, if the democratic-sounding title to London’s V&A exhibition is right. It’s a vague claim made boldly and branded repeatedly across museum areas, vitrines, official publications, gift cards, tee-shirts, bags, badges, chocolate records and anything else vaguely relatable (to stocking a ‘David Bowie is’ store). It is repeated so often, it starts to sound wrong, which might explain the occasional reactionary display captions directing the reader to an assertive reading. It is, nevertheless, a view endorsed by the subject of the exhibition himself since David Bowie is saying There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings right as you glimpse the bright lights and glad rags through the cold anthracite V&A arch under which you enter.

Reactionary signs aside, the stress on not being overarching owes as much to Bowie’s lyrical assemblage, and identity deconstructions, as to the cultural contexts of the 1960s art student turned megastar. You can thank Roland Barthes’ post-structural Death of the Author essay as much as William Burroughs’ ‘cut-ups’ for that. After the bottleneck of the entrance, and getting-the-hang-of how the exhibition hangs Bowie memorabilia into a wider cultural stitching (from World War 2 utility measures to psychedelic posters and counter-culture fanzines), you choose your own direction. Some diligently queue for every artefact in chronological order, others zigzag through the crowds like flâneurs. All paths lead to the ‘David Bowie is’ shop.

On your way to an orange tee-shirt (who wears orange besides the Dutch national team?) or shopping bag (sold out) you discover that Fame isn’t just an ironic song co-penned by Lennon, but what motivated young David Jones through new looks and song styles, even whet his appetite for all things remotely philosophical and had him posing with and reading books he admits were above him (literally so, as the exhibition has the books hover as balletic aerial culture-vultures).  Float by the inner space wanderings and wonderings of Major Tom and the early sleeve art, inspired by the Op-art of Victor Vasarely. Or just hang out in the cavernous, multi-screen area where you are offered three visualisations of performances all spliced across Bowie’s art decades to synch with Jean Genie and other hit songs.

This is where most folk hit a date with awe judging by the jaws hitting the floors (none of you guys seen a Bowie video before?) but if costumes are what you’re after, one of the disappointments of the event is that many of them are hidden behind the dull gauze screens that ignite with the aforementioned sound and vision, but which police the spectatorship of the draped figures behind. Shame. Then again, if costume is one of the disappointments, it is also one of the highlights. Bowie’s self-made style is displayed alongside those of his acting roles, as it were, ranging from the sublime to the, er, Baal. The tramp poet’s drab jacket is invitingly close, you want to touch (no distancing Verfremdung effect then). Meanwhile, Ziggy lies entombed in a glazed casket. Ziggy is dead, undead undead. David Bowie is costumed by the well known, Kansai Yamamoto (Japanese kabuki theatre inspired) and Freddie Burretti (boxy jackets, glam stying) but it is great to get credits on those normally eclipsed by the look. David Bowie is, for example, Thomas Jerome Newton, in Ola Hudson’s The Man Who Fell to Earth black suit and light tan fedora (a look that harks back to Bowie’s odd appearance at the 1975 Grammy awards). David Bowie is also playing Heathen in Hedi Slimane’s blue silk suit with its vamped-up formal Edwardian silhouette. Yes, David Bowie is, thanks to a lot of folk name-checked here. But that isn’t to downplay Bowie’s own creative investment in these looks, a point that is exemplified by the mime-trained body movements that give shape to John Merrick, in the Broadway performance of the Elephant Man. Look Mum, no prosthetics! ... just a nappy (for the sake of modesty) and such a small costume at that … we knew Bowie rarely ate, but this waistline is a size sub-zero.

When Bowie was approached to offer his support for the exhibition, he opened the doors to his 10,000 item strong personal archives. Even the 300-or-so pieces the curators whittled this down to sit atop each other like the ruined city from the cover art of Diamond Dogs. David Bowie is, naturally, too much to take in on one viewing. As with the Verbaliser, Bowie’s co-authored software which rearranges words to inspire a new sense, what you take from David Bowie is … is largely up to your time, crowd tolerance and active spectatorship. What David Bowie is isn’t ... is easy to get around, if you get my sense. We can all be authors ... but just for one day (the chances of getting a second helping are none, unless you become a V&A full member … the show is a record sell out).

David Bowie is … fragments of sense.

When Bowie met Burroughs

Trend-setter, impresario, phenomenon: David Bowie has shaped entire subcultures. Jon Savage traces the star's talent for reinvention and his catalytic encounter with William Burroughs READ ON

David Bowie and William Burroughs
Photograph by Terry O’Neill
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012

David Bowie is … memberless?

One of the lighter moments of the David Bowie is exhibition is the revelation that David Bowie has been castrated … three times! The first was the recall of that Diamond Dogs cover after Bowie’s hybrid little Bowie caused offence.  Tin Machine II was a case of déjà vu as the Americans airbrushed out offending genitalia.  But surely the most bizarre instance is the removal of the bull’s balls when Bowie’s minotaur art for Laura Ashley wallpaper was scraped off. Ouch!

Your Favourite Exhibit

Discuss your highlight of the David Bowie is exhibition and get a free Bowie borg badge, sent post-free to UK (a 1.50 GBP donation outside UK). Get in contact and write 100- 250 words on what you loved most and why you loved it.

Main Image:
Photo collage of manipulated film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth © STUDIO CANAL Films Ltd Image © V&A Images

Tilda Swinton's dinner speech at the opening of David Bowie is READ ON