David Bowie Is – a personal review

I have always found listening to music – especially David Bowie’s music – a highly personal experience; case in point, I prefer to listen to music via a set of sound-excluding headphones. In light of this, the David Bowie Is… exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was perfect for me – it’s a highly versatile exhibition that almost demands that the visitor make active choices as to which elements they engage with. It doesn’t guide you through the exhibits in a linear way, it simply presents them (in a most spectacular fashion, mind) and leaves you to wander.

The first thing that greets you upon entering the exhibit is a mind-mindbogglingly impractical Kansai Yamamoto creation, formed of curving lines and black vinyl. It wasn’t the design that struck me (I had seen the costume many times in photos, so it had lost much of its value), it was the size of the thing – it was startlingly small. Bowie is of average height (at around 5”9, give or take an inch) and seeing that bizarre yet starkly human costume reminded me of that. Given the scale of his achievements, I shouldn’t have been quite as surprised as I was at having over-estimated the height of my imaginary vision of him.

When I first entered the exhibition I had to compete with dozens of other punters craning their necks to get a look at some mood-setting exhibits – a ration book, a copy of Absolute Beginners (the novel rather than the film) and so on and so on. I chose to escape from the crowds and moved forward into the first large room in the exhibition – for around fifteen minutes, I had it completely to myself. I was able to go where I pleased and peer at the exhibits at my leisure, lingering by the ones that held particular appeal. I felt somewhat morbid gazing at the prone, glass-encased mannequin wearing a re-creation of the get-up Bowie wore on the Ziggy Stardust album cover – it was pretty much like peering into an open coffin, albeit a coffin with an unusually well-dressed occupant.

The first few rooms presented such an onslaught of remarkable objects I could feel myself growing numb to them, uncertain of what to focus on. The accompanying audio guide was hard to predict, sometimes hopping to a new subject on the basis of a single step. Being far too restless to stand still and be fed narration, I ended up listening to fragments of the audio. That changed when I proceeded to the next room, where I was greeted by a clutch of gorgeously garbed mannequins and a stack of TV monitors. The monitors all displayed clips from various music videos, including Thursday’s Child which had just began (with Bowie raising his head to stare into a bathroom mirror).

While it will never be considered one of Bowie’s best songs, Thursday’s Child has always spoken to me – I find it full of hope and longing, and when it started playing over my headphones I felt truly moved. I remembered how I’d felt when I’d first heard it; touched by the rawness of the emotion present in the vocals, soothed by the soft, dreamy quality of the melodies. I stayed by the monitor for around two minutes solid because I was afraid the song would stop. When I did pluck up the courage to move, the song kept on playing – that never happened anywhere else in the exhibition. I can’t help but feel grateful for this - the headphones somehow recognized that it was important that Thursday’s Child played out in full.

The Berlin room presented a similarly visceral experience. When I entered, Sense of Doubt came on – soaked with dread and foreboding, it made me shiver just as it had when I’d heard it for the first time. Strange, ambient images flickered at strategic spots throughout the room – skittish pedestrians bustling through Berlin, Bowie’s spindly fingers stabbing chords in the Hansa Studio, his face staring at some distant object as he performed Sense of Doubt for a captive TV audience.

The most arresting exhibit in the room was Bowie’s portrait of Mishima, the Japanese author who committed ritual suicide after a failed coup d’etat. I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Bowie’s skill as a painter, but that portrait has stuck with me – there was a penetrating sadness about the eyes that was hard to look away from. It also helped add an additional layer of resonance to certain lines from the closing track of The Next Day, Heat (then we saw/Mishima’s dog/trapped between the rocks/blocking the waterfall).

David Bowie Is Someone Else (a small room profiling Bowie’s roles on stage and screen) was a true treat for me. I went back multiple times, fascinated by the Labyrinth exhibits – a poster, two pages of storyboards, a crystal ball on a presentation stand (To David, Labyrinth) and Jareth’s riding crop. The latter was particularly beautiful, and I was astonished by the level of craft that had went into it – tiny goblin faces had been worked into the metal. I was also pleased by the sight of a small girl – probably six or seven – who grinned like a hyena upon noticing the poster.

The centrepiece of the exhibition consisted of two enormous screens which were – incredibly cleverly, I might add – integrated with stacks of translucent boxes containing some of Bowie’s most famous costumes. People were captivated by them, watching performance after performance (even a mildly embarrassing rendition of Bang Bang from the Glass Spider tour) with rapt attention – it was as close as I imagine I’ll ever get to being at a Bowie concert. Those watching were full of awe and reverence – the screens could have been projecting Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy and the audience would have been just as captive.

The final room was clean and stark, with a selection of Bowie’s later (1990 and on) stage get-ups – including a brilliant, half-destroyed coat from the Outside tour. I noticed a running theme of ‘distressed frock coats’ throughout the exhibition and was delighted to see that the curator had (rather astutely) noted that they seemed to be riding on the coat-tails of Bowie’s Labyrinth wardrobe.

I left the exhibition feeling deeply moved. Bowie has always spoken to me on an acutely personal level, and the exhibition was an incredibly potent reminder of why that is – Bowie is many things, and that is precisely why I’m drawn to him. He’s a puzzle that inspires curiosity and questioning – his work always demands that the listener engages. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have a complete and whole understanding of what makes him great; I can only listen to his music and experience it. The exhibition did an excellent job at placing Bowie’s work into context, but at the same time it reinforced the mystic, unknowable qualities of his music and persona.

My first instinct was to compare my visit to a ‘religious experience’ and that holds true – I have now experienced David Bowie on a level I could have never hoped for before, and for that I am truly thankful.

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