I feel that its better late than never to review the unmissable sell-out exhibition, David Bowie Is at the V&A. Although the exhibition was open to the public since the 23rd March, tickets snapped up quickly, so last week was my only opportunity to squeeze in an evening preview before its closure on Sunday. After waiting not so patiently for four months, Bowie’s archive of music and visuals did not disappoint.
The title of the exhibition David Bowie Is leaves visitors to make up their own assumption of who or what David Bowie is, a task which seems impossible when absorbing the entire gallery of sound and vision. On approach to the exhibit’s entrance, all visitors are given a personal headset providing music, radio and TV audios to support the 300+ visuals of personal Bowie items and artifacts, photographs and videos.
Little Wonder official music video, David Bowie 1997
The exhibition begins with an introduction into Bowie’s teenage years of growing up in Bromley. However this quickly develops into his growth as an artist and how David Robert Jones became David Bowie we know of now.
Identity is a key theme which runs through the exhibit, and of course, Bowie’s life itself. The rooms are each decorated with costume-clothed mannequins which resemble Bowie’s skinny, awkward body. The vast collection of costumes famously worn by Bowie on stage lets visitors see the changes in his identity over short periods of time. However a question reads ‘David Bowie: Plagiarism or revolution?’ which makes visitors wonder whether Bowie was innovative with his fashion identity or did he in fact copy others? Examples were provided through images of Klaus Nomi wearing his exaggerated tuxedo compared to Bowie’s Saturday Night Live performance attire. Again, the exhibition leaves it up to the visitor to decide on the answer, could it just be a form of inspiration? Don’t we all do use elements from the past and call it ‘new’?
Klaus Nomi (left) and David Bowie (right) performing on Saturday Night Live 1979.
One of the many attractions of the space which stuck out to me was The Verbalizer. Bowie created a program which broke up sentences he inputted, shuffled them up and formed a new sentence. This explains a lot when listening to his lyrics! Bowie described his new program as a ‘kaleidoscope of words and nouns’ however he also used pen and paper to achieve the same technique. Presented in glass boxes were individual pieces of paper which Bowie had written words and phrases on which he then alined at random to create bazaar yet wonderful lyrics.
Throughout the exhibition we are reminded that David Bowie was not just a performer as we know him best, but an artist. This is shown through his variety of characters he took on over the years, but also his experimentation with communication through film. The Mask (a mime) was a promotional film which supported Bowie’s single Love You Till Tuesday. It was one of the most powerful films that stood out to me during the exhibition due to Bowie’s intriguing mime and the underlying story.
The Mask (a mime), by David Bowie 1969
The film was placed within a presentation of Bowie’s character’s costumes including Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust. The Mask acted as irony on his much loved characters and the dangers of fame. When the mask becomes part of his face at the end of the film, it is an expression of unintentionally transforming into his characters.
David Bowie as an actor was also celebrated in the exhibition. I was extremely excited to see the props from my favourite childhood film, Labyrinth (1986) including The Goblin King’s cane and the famous crystal ball. Also shown was a clip from The Elephant Man play where Bowie played the leading role. His performance is compelling and very moving.
The Elephant Man, performed by David Bowie 1980
The final room acted as an arena to a Bowie concert. High walls were projected with live performances and light shows. Behind each projection, visitors were teased with glimpses of the outfits on mannequins, positioned in a window grid wall. Seating was available to take in the final surroundings and enjoy some Bowie classics. As I began my walk through the exit, music from visitor’s headsets continued to echo down the corridor to add to a perfect ending.
Heros, performed by David Bowie at Live Aid 1985
It was recommended that visitors should take two hours to walk round the exhibition. However in my opinion if you wanted to see everything, it would take about five. I’ve only included a small selection of my favourite displays from the exhibit, however there was so much more to indulge into. A truly spectacular exhibition.
Disappointed you missed it? Catch David Bowie Is Happening Now, a film which acts as a finale to the popular exhibition. The exhibition curators take viewers on a personal tour of the exhibition with features on contributors and additional information on the production of the displays. Perfect for those who missed the exhibition or who just can’t get enough!