The V&A celebrates the work of David Bowie with their exhibition Bowie Is.
The captivating tune of Life on Mars draws you into the world of David Bowie. It is his world as conjured up by the V&A with their exhibition Bowie Is. Of course, Life on Mars is not the only song played, Change, Rebel, Rebel and Heroes are also part of the overall soundtrack to Bowie Is, the V&A’s fastest-selling show to date. And with good reason: It captures the spirit of someone known for being elusive. His continuous reincarnations with his many stage personas such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke make him hard to grasp. Bowie, the performer is always there as the over 60 costumes show. Bowie, the person that creates the performer shines through as well, when we hear about him getting up early to be first in the recording studio or read documents of detailed travel arrangements for a tour. Above all, Bowie, the artist is impressively represented too: His Japanese costumes hang from the ceiling surrounded by open books that take the shape of birds that fly around them. This wonderfully reflects how Bowie is inspired by ideas around him and turns them into something new. It is usually something unseen, even abstract that leaves room for interpretation or ‘deciphering’ as it is the case in the small Berlin room later in the exhibition. The floor shows a cryptic pattern of lines, squares and crosses. If you know the ‘code’, you can recognise it as Berlin – Berlin as represented through its tube map of 1977, the one Bowie would have known when he was there. The crosses, for example, signify the stations at which the underground (from the West Berlin network) would not stop as they ran through East Berlin.
The exhibition was put together by the V&A’s Theatre and Performance curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, which explains its theatricality that couldn’t reflect Bowie’s work any better. They have been given unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive, which must be immense, and the 300 objects on display make it seem far more. Also, the use of multimedia and new techniques in sound make the exhibition cutting edge, just like Bowie himself, who has been inspired by innovations in art, theatre, music, technology and youth culture, which in turn put him at the forefront of the performance scene. Bowie, by the way, was not involved in the curation of the exhibition, which was planned long before he made headlines with the surprise release of his single Where Are We Now and its accompanying album The Next Day earlier this year.
The exhibition begins with a small room with art installations and Bowie’s quote ’All Art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.’ Reminding us of Roland Barthes’ essay Death of the Author published in 1967, where the meaning of a piece of art is not derived from the author, but created by the reader.
Bowie, born David Robert Jones in 1947 in Brixton, grew up in the suburbs and headed to Soho to forge a life as a performer. His ambition to make it as an artist is intriguingly brought to life by a room, a gigantic model box, where a flow of projections onto the three walls and cubes in the room show a suburban room with windows, press cuttings and his move to Soho, amongst other events of the time. The exhibition space around it is crammed with photos, letters, records, hand-written lyrics and posters such as the one from Malta’s International Song Festival in 1969, where he sang Space Oddity. The landing on the moon, Kubrick’s film Space Odyssey and mime artist Lindsey Kemp stand out as major influences on Bowie before another ‘stage box’ with mirrors and lights and the Starman costume at the centre get us close to the Top of the Pops stage. There he performed Starman in 1972, which in turn, turned him into a ‘Starman’. The recording of performance runs on a screen in the background.
There is a lot to take in, and when the headphones of the audio guide are put on to catch up, another dimension opens up: It is not an ordinary audio guide with numbers to go back and forth or necessarily a stop button. The guide picks up the sound from the relevant areas. When approaching a screen, for example, the speech or the music is automatically played, although there are also subtitles provided to follow what is said. On some occasions the audio guide offers a ‘special’ in which Howard Goodall tells us more about Space Oddity or Bowie’s time in Berlin. The room with the ‘book-birds’ explores Bowie’s creative process, e.g. writing lyrics, designing or performing mime. There’s also a small ‘sound studio’ with photos of Bowie writing lyrics, singing and playing the guitar. Album covers decorate one of the walls and we hear Bowie talking about his studio work. His film work, however, presented in a mini-cinema, speaks for itself. The characters he portrayed are as strange and varied as his stage personas and his strong screen performances make one wonder why he has not been more acclaimed for them.
Landing on his feet
Another telling item is Bowie’s programme of the 1968 London production of the musical Cabaret, which he was recommended to see. Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin and a meeting with the writer himself in LA, motivated him to get to know this battered, but unimpressionable city in 1976. The result was Bowie recovering from his own battered life in LA and producing three of his finest albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger.
Next to the Cabaret programme is a photo of Marlene Dietrich, a true child of Berlin who took the city’s free spirit with her when she headed to Hollywood in 1929. They both appeared in the 1977 film Just a Gigolo, although Bowie did not get to meet her. The caption explains that she was open about her bisexuality as Bowie was. I am not sure if Marlene Dietrich would agree with this as she kept her lesbian affairs away from public view. However, what both have undeniably in common is creating a public persona that defies convention, being completely in control of their artistic output and producing a huge archive.
The final section that leaves you in awe consists of three concert stages in a room, where, high up, footage from his iconic concerts is projected on gauze. When the lights change, his stage costumes are illuminated and it looks like Bowie is standing there and looking down at us.
Aladdin Sane’s Cave
Tracing David Bowie through this exhibition is quite an adventure thanks to the immense detail and the sheer inventiveness of its presentation. Plus, it’s not only about what can be seen, but also about what can be heard. The ‘immersive audio experience’, as the press package phrases it, integrates all sound material automatically into the tour and offers a lot to discover.
Bowie’s legacy is one to behold and his freedom of expression, play with androgyny and demonstration that one could be whoever one wanted to be, has left a lasting impression on those who are struggling with their identity. His public declaration of being gay in 1972 provided moral support to those who were struggling with their sexuality in everyday life. Now, two marriages and two children later, the light shines differently, but his influence on other people’s life remains unchanged. The success of the exhibition proves it.
Bowie Is runs at the V&A until 11 August 2013 and will then tour to Toronto (25 September to 27 November 2013) and to Sao Paulo (28 January to 21 April 2014). Tickets are still available on the day.
By Sabine Schereck