Before we start, I’d like to make it clear that I am very much a Bowie fan – indeed, when I compiled my Top 100 favourite songs last year, he was one of only a very few artists who appeared on my list more than once (‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’, if you’re interested!). I have long been fascinated by the musical and cultural history of the 1960s and 1970s anyway, so I was very excited when I heard about the David Bowie is… exhibition that’s currently running at the V&A in London. I obviously wasn’t the only one – this long-awaited and heavily publicised exhibition has been sold out for months, but we were lucky enough to get in to see it on Sunday.
For Bowie fans and cultural historians alike, there is much that is positive to see here. I was particularly interested in Bowie’s handwritten lyric sheets and set lists from various phases of his career, and the instantly recognisable hand-drawn storyboard for the infamous ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video – as well as the large selection of stage costumes on display that span the decades from the Ziggy Stardust days (and before) all the way up to more recent Alexander McQueen designs. Also on display here (and worth checking out) are two very striking portraits of Iggy Pop painted by Bowie during their notorious drug-fuelled 1970s Berlin period – and, much to my inner child’s complete and utter delight, Jareth the Goblin King’s crystal ball and sceptre from the cult classic Jim Henson film Labyrinth.
That said, I did have some caveats about this exhibition. Mostly, these are small things. For example, I loved the idea of having a specifically-constructed ‘soundtrack’ to the exhibition rather than your bog-standard boring ‘audio guide’, but, in reality, it didn’t actually work for me as a creative addition, and we all agreed we found it confusing and even a little distracting. I also found the constant visual repetition and reinforcement of the well-worn trope that David Bowie is a musical and cultural chameleon to be a little wearing at times – surely that idea should be obvious from the content and context of the exhibition itself already?
On a practical level, we felt that the exhibits – as interestingly staged though they were – were not evenly distributed throughout the exhibition space and that there was far too much crammed into the first room, thus creating the possibility of bottlenecks in an already busy show. We were there early on a Sunday morning (always a good plan when it comes to visiting a popular V&A exhibition like this one!), so it wasn’t too busy – but I can see how difficult it would be to see these artefacts closely and properly and in one’s own time and space when the place is really packed to the rafters.
And, in many ways, it does deserve to be packed to the rafters – after all, this is the first major exhibition on the subject of a highly singular artist who has had a huge musical and cultural impact in Britain (and beyond) for five decades now. Whether an admirer of the man or not, any music fan worth their salt will know that a good proportion of the bands active since simply wouldn’t have existed without the influence of David Bowie. And it’s not just his music or his style that remains so influential – there is something about this fascinating, complex and flawed man which still draws people into his cultural orbit.
But the problem is that such fundamental complexity doesn’t always come across in this exhibition, particularly because – I felt, anyway – it lacks a coherent sense of context – the bigger picture appears to be missing here. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way it was curated – and in attempting to position itself as an ‘experience’ that will appeal to rabid fans, cultural and musical historians, those who see Bowie as an artistic statement, and your average tourist or museum-goer alike, it overstretches and doesn’t quite manage to hit the spot on any of those levels. It attempts to appeal to everyone, but doesn’t quite succeed in that admirable aim.
It is almost as if it hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be (much like Bowie himself, perhaps?), which admittedly left me feeling a little underwhelmed – and with the sense that the exhibition’s subject had almost been left dangling in isolation from his wider context – although there were still some moments which really sparked my imagination and appealed to my inner music geek. For all its flaws, and despite my slight sense of disappointment, this is still an intriguing exhibition about an intriguing man – and of all the myriad things that it suggests David Bowie is, it’s impossible to disagree that ‘an icon’ must come pretty high up that list…