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‘He’s in the Best-Selling Show’: David Bowie is…, V&A

By Samuel Spencer –

I imagine some of you out there will be highly cynical about the V&A’s retrospective of the life, music, fashion and general godlike genius of David Bowie. ‘It’s a bloody museum’ you cry, ‘surely they should be having exhibitions about, like, the Tudors, Ming vases or Picasso’s blue period.

Why should we care about some glitter-clad pop star from the ’70s? Surely he should be in the same place as flares, the music of Showaddywaddy and racist sitcoms – rightly forgotten indicators of a time that taste if not completely forgot then at least only sent Christmas cards and the occasional postcard. To you people, I have only three things to say: you’re wrong; go see this incredible show; and thirdly you’re wrong.

Admittedly being a bit of  a superfan (Ziggy Stardust has been my Halloween costume of choice since 13 and have had hair dye disasters in both red and blonde in tribute to him,) I’m biased, but this show is the most fun I’ve had in a museum since…well, since the V&A’s British Design show, but to be fair the 20th Century department at the V&A is amazing.

Rather than a show stuck in the glitter-stained nostalgia for the ’70s that you might be expecting, David Bowie is… is very much an exhibition looking into the future (much like the great man himself). Apart from the giant video screens and projections that give it an almost rock concert feel, with Bowie concerts and performances playing large across the walls and video installations like those so well used at the British Museum’s Ice Age Art show, the V&A has teamed up with Sennheiser to create an ‘immersive audio environment’ which works by some form of digital witchcraft to bring music and speech to whatever you’re looking at at the time.

Although this leads to an occasionally frustrating show (with my audio set at one point changing almost at random between Space Oddity and Bowie talking about madness in his family, creating one of the more bizarre mash-ups I’ve heard in my life…), at its finest the audio adds an exicting extra layer to the sow, especially in the area playing the best of his music videos. Here, they all play at once, but only the sound of one plays depending on where you’re standing. I had a lot of fun jumping from square to square and making my headset move from Ashes to Ashes  to Where Are We Now?.

Even amongst the neon lights and digital trickery, though, the real stars of the show are the items that the curators have brought together. They’ve had full access to Bowie’s own archive, and they’ve really made the most of it. With pieces like this, it’s little wonder Bowie’s Starman worried about blowing our minds.

Everything is here – from the classic outfits that seemed to come from the Planet Transsexual long before the Rocky Horror Picture Show (with my particular highlight being a catsuit made from not much more than string and gold hand mannequins…) to his 2003 tour costumes, from hand-written lyrics to the computer program he built to randomly generate lyrics in the 1990s, from a publicity shot of one of his earliest bands (the ill-fated Kon-Rads) to the initial sleeve designs for The Next Day…basically, enough to send a fanboy like me into palpitations!

That is not to say, however, that there is nothing here for those of you who are (to use a geeky Bowie pun) absolute beginners to the world of the Thin White Duke, or those of you who don’t know your Stardust from your Scary Monsters.

Much like the aforementioned British Design and the V&A’s also fantastic 2011 Postmodernism exhibition, anyone who appreciated good design or the artistic process will find much here to justify the (admittedly expensive) entrance price. Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion will be fascinated by the mad exuberance of Bowie’s Ziggy-wear and razor-sharp tailoring of the ‘cocaine and peppers’ ears, as well as his early collaborations with designers such as Alexander McQueen – he has always had a famous knack for choosing the best designers early and coaxing ground-breaking and exciting designs out of them.

Also, those who can appreciate great music cannot fail but be wowed by the soundtrack, full of songs you must at least half-know from parents and the cooler indie nightclubs – Let’s Dance, The Man Who Sold the World (perhaps the only song covered by both Lulu and Nirvana,) Starman, Space Oddity, Fashion, Changes… songs your life will be richer for knowing.

As Tilda Swinton said at the exhibition’s star-studded opening, David Bowie is every alien’s favourite cousin’, and this show is a must for all us freaks – if you’ve ever overdone it on the glitter (and that’s just the boys!), dreamt of rock stardom, or had your mother in a whirl, you must see this show as soon as alienly possible.



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