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David Bowie Is… At the V&A

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As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party…

Unless you’ve been living a Life on Mars for the last few months, it can’t have escaped your notice that 2013 belongs to David Bowie. Like his cinematic cipher Newton, the eponymous [The] Man Who Fell To Earth­, the original space oddity has come crash landing back into our atmosphere after a self-imposed exile of sorts. Ever the master of the grand entrance, Bowie’s unheralded first new material in almost 10 years coincides with the Victoria & Albert Museum‘s landmark retrospective, David Bowie Is… .  While not overseen by the Thin White Duke himself, the chief curators were granted access to the 7,000 items in his personal archive comprising costumes, instruments, hand-written lyrics and sketches.

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For all its lavishness, the journey begins prosaically enough with the projection-aided recreation of post-war suburbia (Beckenham to be exact), where the young and bequiffed David Robert Jones makes his first tentative steps on the path to stardom with his ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’ beat combo, The Konrads. Adorning the walls, the teenage Bowie’s intricately sketched costume designs reveal a studied auteur who would continue to meticulously plot out every facet of his image throughout his career. To a soundtrack of early rock & roll courtesy of the sensory sound tour, there were giggles all round at the black & white BBC footage of the familiar lank-haired 17 year old representing ‘The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men‘– “it’s not nice when people call you darling and that”, implored the callow young mod to a similarly sniggering studio. Lighting and props are cleverly employed throughout to mirror each chapter of the Bowie story, from the concave cavity in which we see Major Tom floating in a tin can, to the barbed-wire walled Berlin section, and the razzmatazz and ray-gun rococo of the heady Ziggy days. Bowie, with a curator’s eye for set design himself, would no doubt approve.

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More so than any other artist, before or since, Bowie crystallised the triumvirate of music, art and fashion. Bowie’s influence on design is immeasurable (it’s no coincidence that Gucci sponsor the event). Always ahead of the game, he commissioned Alexander McQueen when the young designer was fresh out of St Martins. For the anoraks and casuals alike, seeing Bowie’s iconic costumes in-the-thread is thrilling.  They’re all here – Halloween Jack, the pierrot from ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (“the most beautiful clown at the circus”); the sinisterly understated Thin White Duke from the Berlin years; the Japanese rabbit motif play-suit from the early 70s (“my impossibly silly bunny suit”). Museums are supposed to be full of artefacts, but laying eyes on Bowie’s larger-than-life outfits entombed in interplanetary stasis still seems to evoke a vision of the future.

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But this isn’t just a celebration of Bowie the singular style icon. There’s also David Bowie, the songwriter. Amidst the hand-scrawled lyrics and session diaries, visitors are also given a fascinating insight into his Dadaist ‘cut-up’ method of lyric writing and there’s even a documentary excerpt where Bowie talks us through his patented computer programme, ‘The Verbasiser’ – aeons ahead of Apple. A personal highlight was the crates of Bowie vinyl, with punters free to thumb through as in the record shop (remember them?) of yesteryear.  To see parents share this trip down memory lane with flummoxed children (“Did you really go out dressed like that, Dad?”) was a cherished sight indeed, and a pleasing antidote to all the glitzy exclusivity of polished glass display cases. There’s a real joy in some of the rare footage on display, particularly in this YouTube age of instant gratification. There’s Bowie’s solitary and, by all accounts, uncomfortable meeting with Warhol (Andy took umbrage at the eponymous track from Hunky Dory apparently) plus his statuesque Saturday Night Live appearance with Klaus Nomi – causing a ten-tourist pile up as we all watched, completely mesmerised. Footage of Bowie’s many varied forays into film are also screened in a mini-cinema. From spooky 60s arthouse short, The Image, to Jim Henson’s fantasy Labyrinth. To many of my generation, Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King in the latter was a terrifying formative introduction (only partly down to his crotch-busting jodhpurs).

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While there is little exploration of Bowie, the man behind the emblazoned lightning bolt, there are glimpses. Video footage of his relaxed, organic studio jams (screened within a mock-up recording studio no less) help penetrate the mystique somewhat. So on to the showstopper of the whole shebang – the penultimate room is a celebration of Bowie the performer. On a trio of towering 3-storey screens, Bowie’s most famous performances from Ziggy’s last stand to Live Aid are interspersed with more of the fabulous costumes, this time displayed behind the screens themselves with back lit incandescence – like the papparazzo‘s flash. The atmosphere is simply electric. As we expect from today’s exhibitions, David Bowie Is… is a carefully considered multimedia spectacular, but one like no other. When we hand over our money to see ancient Roman ruins or Monet’s watercolours, we leave ourselves in the capable hands of the experts of the era to guide us through the most salient points. But for their fascinating, immersive and, above all, fun depiction of a subject so entrenched in our shared and very recent cultural heritage, the V&A have triumphed. The term ‘living legend’ is batted around all too much, but few could dispute Bowie’s claim to that moniker. One exhibit, a lipstick-smeared tissue – like a saint’s holy relic – serves as a totem of the near religious fervour he incites. There are few other artists who lend themselves to this type of experience. Bowie is simply popular culture’s ultimate chameleon, sartorially and sonically. In one of the earliest soundbites of the tour, Bowie reflects with South London matter-of-factness,”I was diversifying all over the place”. Indeed, David. Indeed.

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