Arts & Culture: David Bowie Is

Unless you’ve been living in complete isolation for the past few months you will have invariably heard the hype surrounding the new David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A. You may well be thinking that it couldn’t possibly live up to the media’s expectations and scoffing at your friends and family clamouring to buy tickets. Well then, you would be wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. It’s the best thing they’ve curated in years and more than justifies the frenzy surrounding it.

I pretty much leaped out of my chair when offered the chance to go and see this and walked around the exhibition with a big fat grin on my face from start to finish. It’s honestly that good.

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I know no one who dislikes David Bowie. His music seems to transcend boundaries and add an uncannily celebratory power when played. The end credit sequence of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville; Young Americans played over images of Depression-era families and children is so powerful with or without the context of the film it gives me goosebumps every time. And what kind of person didn’t kind of fancy the Goblin King in Labyrinth? I mean, come on now.

But I digress…

It would be impossible to categorise ‘David Bowie Is’ as simply an exhibition of music memorabilia, it is so much more. Part fashion retrospective, part art installation, it tracks a journey from small town anonymity to all-encompassing, boundless expression, floating through space and back again, through drug hazes, ludicrous outfits to piercing, stripped-down clarity. Sure, I’m gushing a tad, but rightly so. The curators have included every conceivable variety of memorabilia, from scrawled lyrics on cigarette packs to some of his most iconic images.

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This exhibition is fantastic in so many ways, a beautiful multimedia celebration of a career so varied and intertwined with popular and niche culture. Every facet of Bowie’s ever-changing image and artistic intention is lovingly explored through a mixture of photography, video installation, literature and, of course, costume. It chronologically charts his progress through varying sounds and identities yet still allows him to remain enigmatic.

I was half expecting him to be roaming round the galleries himself, disguised and slipping unnoticed around the journalists and bloggers. Alas, he wasn’t.

The breadth of Bowie’s immersion in and influence on culture is astounding and thought-provoking. Unlike the majority of today’s crop of “out there” performers, Bowie put a great deal of consideration into his influences, twisting them into something new rather than simply referencing. The exhibition pays special attention to the influence of the work of J.G Ballard, George Orwell and Stanley Kubrick on his music and image, with key pieces of their work positioned in the context of Bowie’s vision. The hollow, savage worlds of Ballard are dangerous yet fascinating, referencing the strange beauty of huge abandoned swimming pools and high-rises while emphasising aggressive sexuality in the smallest of facial curvature, magnified beyond all recognition, as in The Atrocity Exhibition. The exploration of inner space brought out by these works fascinated Bowie and allowed him to construct new identities, new worlds for his music to play in. He invites transformation and expression in himself and his fans, an aspect the exhibition pays homage to.

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His lavish and iconic costumes populate the space on thin white mannequins; of particular interest are an Alexander McQueen tyre track printed suit and the extravagant shapes and textures of  Kansai Yamamoto’s all in ones. There is such a kaleidoscope of colour and effect in these pieces it’s quite difficult to absorb all at once, but the curation places them in the context of transformation and evolution, it all somehow makes sense. For me the most impressive part of the collection is the huge video installation in the central room, thirty foot high translucent screens with concert footage projected, speakers cranked to the hilt. Completely immersive and awe-inspiring, it is an experience that will stick with me for a good long while.

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Whether or not you’re into David Bowie you can’t deny the effect he has had on music, fashion and the way we express ourselves. The exhibition is truly comprehensive, and regardless of if you view him as a highly skilled plagiarist (no) or a trailblazer who was / is way ahead of his time (yes!) it’s well worth spending a good few hours in.

The exhibition opens on the 23rd, as far as I know tickets are selling fast so get in there swiftly…

For more photos check out my Pinterest board at http://pinterest.com/nadiaramoul/david-bowie-is-press-viewing/

@NadiaReads

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