Fragmentary, worldly, hyper-real...
In 2013, me and my wife Jane – an avid Bowie fan since that fateful Thursday in the early 70s when he took to the screen around 7.30pm – were part of the lucky hordes to get into the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition of the life and times of the Thin White Duke.
For me, it was only then that I truly appreciated quite what a cultural lightning rod Ziggy had been for the late 20th Century and beyond (even the planet??) – so much so, that I was moved to immediately respond with musings of my own.
Those words were not really planned for a certain mass-consumption. But, in the wake of Aladdin Sane’s passing and the fact the world is perhaps eagerly anticipating Lady Gaga’s tribute at this year’s Grammys, it suddenly feels appropriate that my verdict on David Bowie: Is, should be my ABC Tales debut...
Fragmentary, worldly, hyper-real...
While David Bowie stared down the barrel of the lens on Top of the Pops in 1972, to point and utter the immortal line,” I had to phone someone so I picked on you, oh oh”, it would be easy to suggest that over in South Kensington, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “stuffed shirts” would never contemplate staging a show devoted to the not-yet Ziggy and his burgeoning oeuvre.
However, in less than a year, claims Wikipedia at least, the V&A would become the first UK museum to stage a rock concert – by the singularly unremembered psychedelic band Gryphon. They did deliver a lecture as well, nodding to academic rigour.
So, while the curators have endured stick for deciding to stage Kylie Minogue: Image of a Pop Star, in 2007 – the first of its recent so-called “too populist” exhibitions – it seems they have had form for years, and so for the venue to give the same treatment to Bowie, without whom Kylie would have not had her best ideas, actually feels entirely appropriate.
At once humbling, awe-inspiring, overwhelming and all-encompassing to the senses, welcome to Bowie-world.
David Bowie Is: a dark, apparently chaotic labyrinth, squeezing mere snatches of the man himself in to what we are all shoehorning ourselves in to this space for - the showstopper, the chameleon, the smasher of conventions, the headache to the censor. Indeed, the one who apparently struggled to converse with Warhol during their only meeting – perhaps proved to be his greatest student, for taking the perishable nature of all that we produce and presenting its most complete package.
Even the attendants have apparently been carefully kitted out in co-ordinated, suited uniform, to blend in to the mass – but, hey they won’t be afraid to stand out if you try and brandish a camera in this jealously-guarded intellectual property.
Initially setting out to provide a portrait chronologically, the show is then apparently subsumed into a stream of consciousness where Bowie is placed in a fragmentary, wordly context of hyper-real proportions, which filters what he cites as influences in the spheres of art, theatre, music, fashion, film, etc – performances by Anthony Newley and the “Underneath the Arches” singing sculpture of the young Gilbert and George, in 1969, to kick things off.
This stream of consciousness extends to the audiopack for each patron, which is triggered as each element is neared, but is apparently easily distracted, playing fragments of audio and music, sometimes repeatedly, as the spheres fight for attention – one second Starman, next Space Oddity, and then a stuttering, solemn voice offering the opportunity to listen to Howard Goodall’s analysis of Bowie’s work, but mired in a digital glitch – a fleeting thought, colliding with the ongoing kaleidoscope.
The likes of annotated original lyric sheets, lipstick-stained tissues from 1974, traditional exhibit labels, are glimpsed, as we all feel compelled, turbo-like, to speed through the space, bumping in to one another, trying to grasp the ungraspable essence of what makes the man tick – though, you can’t help thinking that he would merely laugh and suggest we should expend more energy doing our own thing – always undesiring of telling anyone what to do, say, wear, perform, etc.
For, of course, seeing Bowie placed in this traditional, almost staid, static context – however much the technology behind it attempts to convey otherwise – flies in the face of what he has attempted to do these last near 50 years, to shake up the habitual, to steal a little from The Knife. You cannot forget that now he is nearly 70 himself, the youth he was capturing the hearts and minds of in 1972, have grown up to run the establishment he and they were then apparently kicking against.
In a nutshell, that gaze down the lens that had the fans screaming and the moneymen’s mental tills ringing, was Bowie’s key to the door of the great arc of his career – why we are all climbing over one another 41 years later, still clamouring to get a piece – and how, in 2013, he did it all over again, taking us unawares in exactly the same way and splitting the critics in just the same way.
We hoped The Next Day would mine the same seam as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Hunky Dory – but, what right did we have to expect it to? And, more to the point, does Bowie actually need to care anymore?
He has weathered more than 30 years of jibes – post-Scary Monsters – about how the great well of vital creativity simply dried up, on the release of Let’s Dance.
But, this exhibition is here not only to present the minutiae of his life-long love of Kibuki and its influence on all those early costumes, or the depression of the mid-70s that led to the monochrome output in Berlin, but to make it clear how many tickets he has sold since 1983, how many new concepts of performance have been realised, how Bowie.net was the first musician website to go online – in short, while we were all sneering, ‘Well, it’s not 1974, is it?’, he was just as busy, apparently unconcerned about what we thought – whether David Jones would be so glib is anyone’s guess.
Dedicated fans will feel frustrated if they try to scour every word, every look, every performance, Is crams in – as those who have not been so obsessed, but are carried along on the wave of the spectacle to be there, clash with them in the darkness.
It does not shy away from any aspect of his career – clips of Labyrinth and the execrable Absolute Beginners are all here – it simply conveys it as a very long journey, complete with those stream of consciousness that drove the last 50 years, packed in to two hours for us mere mortals.
It could leave you overwhelmed and not a little small as you try to contemplate how such output could possibly come from just one man (the reality being rather different, with his supporting cast obviously quite vast) when you, well you’ve hardly even one fully-realised song to your name...