I managed to get to see the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V & A yesterday and by jingo was it busy…both in terms of the number of visitors lining up and and as a description of the sheer sensory overload you’re exposed to once inside. Bowie is the original multimedia pop star and has always taken as much care with the visual and performance aspects of his act as he has with the actual music, and this show has gathered together a highly impressive collection of his costumes, his sketches and his promotional material as well as films and videos from most stages of his career. It’s a lot to take in – you certainly can’t imagine a similarly themed show on the life of, say, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen being anything like as visually stimulating as this one.
For once the description “all singing, all dancing” isn’t that wide of the mark: everyone entering is given a pair of headphones and an audio device which can detect where you are in the exhibition and feed you the appropriate accompaniment, which might be music or interview extracts or the soundtrack to one of the many video screens that line the route through. This is a smart tactic to avoid too many overlapping sounds from different sections of the show, but it did take me a while to adjust to the need to stand still once an audio track has started. If you wander from a hot spot you lose the signal pretty quickly and you risk picking up a commentary from another exhibit that may not yet be visible. I’m fairly certain Bowie himself hasn’t been to this exhibition but you can imagine the writer of Space Oddity approving of the idea of rooms full of people all isolated from each other, experiencing different ambient soundtracks and feeling vaguely alienated.
I got the hang of it eventually though, and even if the audio experience was not quite seamless there was more than enough to look at to hold my interest. The first couple of rooms focus on Bowie’s formative years and repeated failure to establish himself as a star in the 1960s and there are plenty of mod and hippy era photos and posters here, as well as hilarious footage of the 17 year old David Jones being interviewed by Cliff Michelmore about his campaign to stop persecution of long-haired young men. By the time Bowie actually scored a hit in 1969 he’d already worked his way through a bewildering variety of looks and musical styles, a trend that would if anything accelerate through his glory years, and the central rooms of the exhibition are packed with outlandish glam costumes that look like they weigh a ton and would cause severe over-heating if worn on stage, as well as videos of performances both iconic and obscure, some illustrations of significant influences, explanations on the contexts and recordings of the classic albums and most excitingly of all several of Bowie’s original handwritten lyrics for songs such as Ziggy Stardust and Ashes To Ashes, complete with crossings-out and rejected ideas in the margins. There’s also a room in which one can sample extracts from Bowie’s variable-quality, but never predictable, acting career (lovely to see Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth again). As you might expect, the depth of coverage falls off dramatically once we reach the 1980s and Bowie’s inspirational run comes to a bland, blue-suits-and-arena-tours, close, but there’s enough interesting material here on his 1997 album Earthling and the brand new The Next Day for the argument to be sustained that the man with the cheekbones and the ill-matching eyes is still relevant.
The highlight of the whole show is the big room at the end in which live performances from down the years are projected onto massive, double-decker bus height, screens – it’s all somehow completely beguiling, even the footage from only a decade ago. It’s pretty unlikely that Bowie will tour again, but this is as good a substitute for the real thing that you can imagine. If there’s a fault with David Bowie Is it’s that there’s not much coverage of the vast influence the man has had over the pop and rock and dance acts that followed him – as Madonna and Lady Gaga, and even to some extent U2 and REM would admit, it’s now taken as read that media-savvy stars are expected to in some way re-invent themselves with every new album and tour, and that certainly wasn’t the case in the era of long hair, sandals and earnest confessional singer-songwriters. The exhibition runs to August and is probably already sold out, but anyone with even a passing interest in Bowie or the conceptual end of 1970s rock music should try to get see it if they haven’t already.
Postscript: When the exhibition closed in London in August a special live event was held featuring many commentators and Bowie collaborators. Our correspondent Nicola’s review of this can be found here.