Bowie is – Exhibition at the V&A London

The David Bowie exhibition at the V&A in London is stunning. It has been on since 23rd March and remains until 11 August, but advance tickets sold quickly which is why I ended up on an overflow date: Sunday evening when the rest of the museum is closed. Setting the scene outside is some faded pavement art including the iconic “Heroes” pose. We went in through a side door, along a corridor, and to the exhibition entrance to pick up the Sennheiser headphones and wireless receiver; these detect where you are and provide appropriate music and commentary.

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The sound was excellent overall though the technology not quite perfect, particularly towards the end where the concert soundtracks seemed a bit mixed up, but no matter.

There are several kinds of exhibit:

  • Writings and occasionally paintings by Bowie and others – including handwritten lyrics, sometimes with variations and corrections
  • Album artwork and outtakes
  • Costumes
  • Stage sets, some sketched, some 3D models
  • Photographs
  • Concert footage
  • Film extracts
  • Books and posters that influenced Bowie or capture his era

The standard of the exhibits is excellent, with many things that I (as a reasonably well informed though not quite obsessive fan) had not seen before. It started well for me with a handwritten note about 1. Outside, which starts:

What Eno and I are endeavouring to do with this album is, by means of the loosely knit story line and characters, create a textual and musical diary that will record feelings and fears as we approach the end of the millennium.

The visual layout of the exhibition (along with the audio soundtrack) is key to its appeal. I would describe it as appropriately fractured, with clever use of light and shade, and splashes of bright colour to offset the monochrome of the many handwritten or typed documents.

I was expecting a plentiful array of stage costumes, and there is, but at no point does this feel like a costume exhibition. The costumes are positioned for dramatic effect, many of them high up, and form a kind of backdrop to the other exhibits.

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The popularity of the event means that you cannot proceed quickly, especially as it takes time to read and take in many of the exhibits. This might even be a good thing, forcing you not to rush. According to the organisers, most people take around 90 minutes to look round; I took a little longer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the demographics of those attending. There were plenty of visitors in their twenties and thirties, who had not been born when Bowie was strutting his stuff as Ziggy Stardust, which made me wonder how they had encountered his work.

It was intriguing to see some of Jonathan Barnbrook’s alternative designs for the cover of The Next Day, Bowie’s most recent album. The final version shows a white square blanking much of the sleeve of “Heroes”; alternates show subverted cover art based on Pin Ups and Aladdin Sane as well as a different take on “Heroes” using an overlaid bright red patch with the lettering “Where Are We Now?” showing through; perhaps that one was intended for the single.

The film section includes part of the Elephant Man show in New York, in which Bowie gives a superb, heart-rending performance. I hope that a whole show exists on film and that we get to see it sometime.

The large room at the end is where you see and hear concert footage including some rarities, such as Sweet Thing from the Tower Philadelphia in 1974 (the David Live concerts). This is where the audio went slightly wrong for me which was a shame; but I did enjoy watching and hearing the end of the famous Ziggy retirement concert in great quality. “Not only is this the last show of the tour … it’s the last show … that we’ll ever do.” Cue wailing and tears; apparently even the band did not know in advance. What a showman.

Make sure you catch this before it finishes. Although advance tickets are sold out, some are released each  day if you turn up in the morning.

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