Review: David Bowie is, Victoria and Albert Museum (March 23rd to August 11 2013)

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David Bowie is - Victoria and Albert Museum

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Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Design by Brian Duffy and Celia Philo, make up by Pierre La Roche

I’ve always loved David Bowie. From Ziggy Stardust via the Thin White Duke to the smartly dressed Hamlet-inspired creations of the Serious Moonlight Tour. Even the movie roles in The Man Who Fell To Earth and (very differently), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.  These ‘characters’ shaped the style and attitude of my teenage years, while Bowie’s music of the period touched me like it did all angst-ridden teenagers all over the world with its predominant themes of alienation/otherwordliness/isolation (delete as appropriate). And although my love of Bowie has waxed and waned since the 1990s, I was still like an excited kid in a sweet shop to get a preview invite to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the David Bowie Is retrospective – along with thousands of other mostly 40 and 50 somethings.

What’s striking about the exhibition is that it’s not just about Bowie, but very much about the world that shaped him and consequently us all. So for example we see his early influences such as artists Gilbert and George singing ‘Underneath the Arches’, mime artist Lindsay Kemp who Bowie was a student of during the 1960s and several films of the ’70s, particularly Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: Space Odyssey and his extremely disturbing Clockwork Orange. If this gives the impression of Bowie as a cultural magpie who borrowed from here, there, everywhere that’s probably because he was – and is. That’s not to say there isn’t a focus on his own work too. There are his own child-like sketches of the dystopic ‘Hunger City’ which was the inspiration for the Diamond Dogs tour of 1974, handwritten lyrics from many of his biggest hits as well as iconic photographs of Bowie from the period, taken by celebrity photographersbowie_stripped_bodysuit like Terry O’Neill and Brian Duffy (most famous for the iconic Aladdin Sane cover).

There are also interviews with those who have worked with Bowie over the years, perhaps most notably record producer Tony Visconti who talks about the work process with Bowie and basically how easy he is to get along with. There’s even a section on ‘The Verbasiser’, a computer program that Bowie helped develop which randomly chops up words from various stories to make the process of song writing simpler. “It’s like the storylines you get from dreams without the boredom of having to sleep,” explains Bowie.

Then of course there are the stage costumes – around 60 of them in total. While some of these are magnificent, particularly the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie along with Alexander McQueen for the cover of 1997 album Earthling as well as Yamamoto’s Striped Bodysuit from Aladdin Sane (see pic), others – like those from the Serious Moonlight tour and the jumpsuit from the famous Top of the Pops Starman appearance – look disappointingly washed out. Time may not have diminished Bowie as an artist with The Next Day being (nearly) as good as anything since 1983’s Let’s Dance, but it seems to have taken its toll on just about everything else. As Bowie himself once sang: “Time – He’s waiting in the wings, He speaks of senseless things, His script is you and me boys.”

Brandish was a guest of Sennheiser who provide the GuidePort sound system for the Bowie is exhibition which runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum from March 23rd to August 11th. Tickets cost £15.40 (concessions available).

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