The David Bowie exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum transports visitors to an exciting era of fresh ideas and creativity
“For here Am I sitting in a tin can, Far above the world, Planet Earth is blue, And there’s nothing I can do” ….
For followers of the iconic rock star, the lyrics recall a time and place of overwhelming creative excitement. Spurred on by the Apollo 8 mission, David Bowie entered a new psychological phase that reflected the alienation of someone trapped in a capsule, despite the advancement of science. Musically he moved to a new genre, away from the more folk based chords he’d been strumming out up until then. As one explores the memorabilia tucked into endless nooks and crannies within a large section of the ground floor at the V&A, you are transported with huge excitement back to that era where fresh ideas all converged into this all-time great artist. And as scatterings of his lyrics pop up around the exhibition, one can almost feel his music play out sonorously in the subconscious of the thousands of visitors from all round the world who have also come to pay homage to this eclectic being.
Always hungry for the next new idea, Bowie was quick to embrace other emerging talents – Alexander McQueen and Issey Miyake for example were both barely out of college when Bowie absorbed their work into his own. He captured and reprocessed the music of others, which ranged from folk to Frank Sinatra, but in a way that was more than simply mutating and much more than reproducing, making him his own original artist. He displayed a confidence with his sexuality that allowed him to experiment – for example on the front cover of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie posed as a man with long hair, wearing a dress and women’s boots, but when the American audience didn’t like it, he redid it, just for them, but this time appearing as a gun wielding cowboy.
He actively took on influences from history and from other cultures: Hindu bindis representing the third eye for the album cover of Aladdin; Fritz Lang, Die Brucke art and German expressionism in Station to Station; Surrealist ideas in his experimental paintings and the sentiments of William S. Burroughs in his lyrics, to bring out a phenomena that had never been experienced before.
Asia and the Far East held a long fascination for Bowie; for example as an actor playing a prisoner of war in a Japanese war camp in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, he worked alongside composer and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto. At other times he appropriated Japanese imagery and designs, and delved deeply into Buddhist philosophies. Bowie, it could be argued, was today’s modern man but decades before everyone else, which is why this exhibition honouring him over two auditorium sized rooms honouring is easily warranted. The first large space is dedicated to his multitude of interests which saw Bowie not just as a singer and song writer, but also as an artist, set designer, fashion icon, actor and writer, the latter which he would have followed to greater depths if music hadn’t worked for him. Through this mishmash of sources, Bowie nevertheless comes through with the distinction of his own personality, all despite depression and suicide having deep inroads in his own family history.
In the second room we are met with mass video screens set as stages, showing films of classic moments from his concerts – such as the time when Bowie announced the retirement of Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Apollo. It transports his worshippers back into the time and place of his landmark concerts, and cannot help but bring out an inner smile; after all they don’t make Rock Stars like this today.
And it’s here, at this makeshift stage, that the theatricality of Bowie comes into its own, where punk and ballet clash but don’t collide, and where Bowie devotees can relive those legendary moments in rock memory. Bowie, whose father worked in PR and he himself for a short time in advertising, made sure his music was much more than that – it all formed an act and performance, and after the success of Space Oddity, he became immersed in the craft of audience manipulation.
Years ahead of his time, Bowie was interested as much in being trendy as a trend setter, always self-regarding and altering his stance to achieve a winning formula. When he attained it, he never stuck to it for long. For devoted fans, this exhibition offers up the chance to re-connect with all these sentiments and throws in a few lesser known gems – in 1995 for example Bowie helped developed the Verbasizer computer programme, which input sentences and mixed them, creating a kaleidoscope of meanings for ideas and lyrics. It was the way he worked long before the invention of mass programming, so the Verbasizer could be said to merely be putting Bowie’s ways of working into the public domain. The ultimate chameleon, Bowie always added his own take on whatever influences he took on board and churned out something new. Looking retrospectively, Bowie has now reworked the album Heroes, adding new songs to it and crossing out the title to replace it with a new one, The Next Day.
This show has to be credited for its clarity, in bringing together what are at times rather disparate sources, without giving away to sentimentality, but also for its honesty; like Bowie himself, it makes no pretences about him being an obscure artist who got discovered by chance. This said, it nevertheless leaves one with a strong fondness for a genius who does it all with such intelligence and panache that one cannot help but eagerly await the next product in the brand of David Bowie.
The David Bowie exhibition runs from 23 March to 11th August 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Image from: http://theartsyjournalist.wordpress.com/
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