Tuesday 26 March 2013

DAVID BOWIE IS Exhibition – Dianne Hofmeyr

DAVID BOWIE IS © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 
For the first time in history a Museum has been given access to the David Bowie Archive. On Preview Day of DAVID BOWIE IS, the V&A was abuzz. The queue stretched from the exhibition entry right the way along the long marble hall all the way back to the Kensington Gore entrance. The wait was an hour and a half and that was only if you were a Member and clutched an invite. The response was unprecedented even surprising the V&A organizers and staff. I must admit to giving up and returning at 10 am the next morning when admittance was by ticketed time with far fewer Members weaving their way in. 

Why Bowie on a History blog? Well apart from the fact that the numbers last Friday made history, the exhibition in itself is surprising in that David Bowie has been out of the limelight for almost a decade. It's a very timely exhibition for the V&A as Bowie released a new surprise Album on his 66th birthday in January. And for those of you also born in the year 1947 and for anyone fascinated by this period of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s, DAVID BOWIE IS will be a marvellous step back into the cultural and social influences of the past.

Bowie, born David Jones in 1947, was brought up in a bedsit in Chelsea with no heating when ration cards were still in existence. Relics of his youth… a pendant of pop idols of the time, a model of the Queen’s coronation carriage, Beano comics, books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, early 60's photographs of a blonde teenager with slicked back hair are all there to see...
Promotional shoot for The Kon-rads 
Photograph by Roy Ainsworth, 1963 
 Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012.
Image © V&A Images 
... and finally the photograph of that sapphire sphere emerging from the darkness, viewed by astronauts from outer space. Who remembers seeing that first unearthly shot of the place we inhabit? 

The moon landing inspired his fictitious character Major Tom and his single, A Space Oddity, which coincided with the landing, was Bowie’s breakthrough moment. His handwritten lyrics in the exhibition from this time with their many scratched changes and scribbles, for songs like Oh You Pretty Things, Starman, and Five Years will endear him to any writer who takes to pen and paper to work through tricky dialogue and narrative.

The exhibition explores Bowie’s innovative approach to putting together albums and tours by creating them around fictionalised stage personas and narratives. 1972 marked the birth of his most famous creation – Ziggy Stardust, a human manifestation of an alien. Ziggy was daringly androgynous and had an otherworldly appearance that still has a powerful influence on pop culture.

Not only has Bowie’s music and individualism influenced others, but has itself been influenced by wider movements in art, design and contemporary culture. His spacesuit for Starman designed by Freddie Burretti, was inspired by Kubrick’s film, Clockwork Orange. And the designs for the Ziggy Stardust tour were inspired by Kansai Yamamoto, whose first international showing took place in Britain in 1971. Yamamoto went on to design the flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973.
Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour 
 Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita, 1973 
© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012 
The shiny patent boots with green satin platforms, the many cloaks, suits and costumes are all on display. We see a designer’s notebook with Bowie’s measurements, the culottes designed by Issey Miyake only shortly after he graduated in 1971 and the iconic Union Jack coat designed by Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover.

Artists like Andy Warhol, with his experimental film and performance work and manipulation of images of famous people like Marilyn Monroe, and writers like George Orwell, with his book Nineteen Eighty Four, all made an impact and influenced Bowie's approach to music, tours and videos. He is quoted as saying: 'It has to be three dimensional. I’m not just content with writing songs.' He saw the videos as an extension of his art rather than a marketing device.

Most bizarre of the objects exhibited is a puppet with David Bowie’s face projected onto the co-joined cloth head-shapes so that they rest cheek to cheek in conversation with each other.

The penultimate room celebrates Bowie as a pioneering performer both on stage and in film in a gigantic immersive audio-visual, where fortunately there is a chance to sit down. I should have mentioned before that everyone is provided with a headset but you can view the rooms out of sequence as they are synced to wireless and pick up the narrative at certain hotspots in each room.

Bowie is described by Dylan Jones author of the book, When Ziggy Played Guitar, as being: ‘the quintessential rock chameleon, the archetypal pop changeling'. A sense of this comes across in the words printed on the walls in the various exhibition rooms… David Bowie is making himself up... David Bowie is surprising himself... David Bowie is moving like a tiger on Vaseline... and in the room with huge audio-visual of his concerts... David Bowie is someone else.

In the final room against a background of photographs, are the words:
The exhibition tells part of the story but the rest lies with us, the audience, and the connection we make to the man and the myth. Bowie offers no ‘authoritative voice’ but a rich body of work for us to admire, appropriate, re-imagine, and make our own. 

See DAVID BOWIE IS for yourself and make up your own mind…
Timed tickets cost £14, or there's free admittance if you are a Member of the V&A (but go early in the day to avoid the crush). Allow yourself about two hours.

Currently a free exhibition of photographs of David Bowie by Sukita is showing at Snap Galleries in the Piccadilly Arcade to coincide with the exhibition.

Please note: The images used in this blog are by special permission from the V&A for the period of this exhibition only and may not be reproduced.
Dianne Hofmeyr's picture book, THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE, published by Frances Lincoln and illustrated by Piet Grobler, is out on 4th April.


Ms. said...

What a Gift Dianne--I'm over the pond in NYC and there will be no chance for me to see this one, so you made my day! Thank you.

Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks Dianne - just staggered by the breadth of his imagination

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes... one might not like all his music but as you say the breadth of his imagination... a creative genius. I read that 47 000 tickets have already been sold for the exhibition.