Tuesday, May 28, 2013

He's in the best-selling show: David Bowie is... at the V&A

When the brain starts wondering about the enormity of the cosmos there gets to a point that you have to give up. Because try as you might, the human brain is just rubbish when trying to figure stuff out like what existed before The Big Bang. And what started it. Or whom.

And as if that doesn't render you cross-eyed, scientists now hint that there may even be more than one universe, and that space and therefore everything we know about it has no boundary. Which only gets worse when you start to contemplate what - if anything - existed before the Big Bang and how we went from bugger all of anything to, well, all of this.

The idea that before The Big Bang there was nothing, some more nothing, lots more nothing, and then something, is a little like life up until January 8 this year, when the world encountered a space oddity of its own. For early in the morning of David Bowie's 66th birthday, an extended period of nothing and more nothing suddenly became:

That surprise was, of course, something arguably more important than the creation of all matter - the totally  unexpected return of Bowie from almost a decade-long exclusion from public life, a period in which many had even contemplated the termination of one of the most talked about, analysed and theorized artistic careers in human history.

That may sound like hyperbole but, with the exception of The Beatles, there really has been no other artist to have been placed under the microscope quite as forensically. Which, I suspect, is partially what he wanted.

In the BBC's epic new documentary Five Years, which made its bow on Saturday night, Bowie is seen in the early 1970s castigating an interviewer for calling him a rock star: "I'm not - I'm not in rock'n'roll", describing elsewhere that "I feel like an actor when I’m on stage, rather than a rock artist." You could almost hear Keith Richards, somewhere, expectorating that bronchial cackle of his, mocking the apparent pretence of such a statement.

But, then, there has never been an artist with such a well-developed sense of identity and understanding of the value of evolving it. Madonna may have reinvented her image countless times, but these have been mere costume changes. Bowie, on the other hand, has repeatedly regenerated as and when the artistic whim has taken him, from frizzy-haired folkie to Ziggy, porcelain-skinned, emaciated cokehead to Philly soulboy, early pioneer of contemplative avant-garde ambience to inventor of New Romanticism - the list goes on.

Myriad books and the handful of Bowie documentaries may have captured these changes, and captured them well, but it has taken the David Bowie is... exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum to curate them into a cohesive narrative.

From the moment you walk in you are presented with a soundbite of Bowie's own self-definition: "I could have been the Cockney Dylan", he is heard saying through the audio headset that accompanies your tour. It's actually some time before you see Bowie himself: at the entrance is a screen showing a black and white TV interview with Gilbert and George, talking opaquely about their art and looking more like a Vic and Bob piss-take than the feted artists themselves. Their appearance - and the lack of the exhibition's subject - is unnerving, but sets the scene that you are clearly not in for the usual rock memorabilia of a couple of cigarette-burned guitars, a knackered drum kit and the obligatory school report.

Instead, you get the story of this most complex of personalities, from his 1947 birthplace and initial childhood home in Stansfield Road, Brixton, to his formative years in leafy Bromley, through his teenage interests in American rock'n'roll, to his admission into the Mod world, hanging out in Soho with friend and fellow (or rival) Mod, Marc Bolan, before taking the obligatory art school path to full adulthood for almost every major British musician of the same generation.

But, as David Bowie is... richly illustrates, what happened next was anything but conventional, as he adhered himself to "using rock'n'roll as a medium", a platform for the characters he would embody as he transformed David Robert Jones into - as the BBC Nationwide reporter Bernard Falk disparagingly referred to him - a "bizarre, self-constructed freak".

Those characters - Ziggy Stardust and numerous variations on the detached alien theme - are all brought together by the V&A's Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who were given largely unrestricted access to the David Bowie Archive. 

The resulting display is a fascinating array of more than 300 individual items, including original handwritten lyrics to songs like Rock'n'Roll Suicide, or the studio instrument hire order for the Space Oddity session. Though items like these are fairly typical of the music retrospective, the minutiae of detail across such smaller exhibits illustrates the exhaustive thought put in by the V&A team to telling the Bowie story.

The exhibition's highlights are, inevitably, those items most associated with Bowie's numerous images - the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (including the one worn on Top of the Pops for the groundbreaking performance of Starman), the Union Jack frock coat by Alexander McQueen and worn by Bowie on the Earthling cover, and the Pierrot costume from the Ashes To Ashes video that pretty much launched New Romanticism.

Abstracted from their original context, be it live performances, television appearances or promotional films, they not only lack animation but also the colours that, on TV seemed so vibrant. Shoes and boots look larger than they should be (friends have commented on how relatively small Bowie's feet are). The freakiest show, if you will allow me.

David Bowie is... evolves as the artist himself has, moving through the obsessions and fascinations, concepts - good and bad, the evolution of video as a music medium, the inevitable development of an acting career, and the haircuts. The many, many haircuts.

As you reach its conclusion you arrive in a giant, video-walled chamber showing clips of Ziggy and the Spiders which argue the strong case that behind the performance artist has always been a performer of an inventiveness and charisma matched by few, and even then we're talking stage talents as rare as Jagger or Presley.

And, just as Bowie himself this year reminded us, as you think you've had your lot, there's one more section, a coda to the whole experience, which, via near-silent video footage of a photo session some years ago, shows Bowie strumming a vintage guitar, pulling Gene Vincent and Elvis poses. Singularly, and without costume or accompaniment, he ends the exhibition of his own career with a fascinatingly simple explanation of what the fuss is all about.

David Bowie is... continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until August 11. Although all advance-booking online tickets have sold out, tickets can be bought at the V&A if you go in person to the ticket desk before 10am each morning. Full details of ticketing can be found on the V&A website.

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