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David Bowie Is

We check out the V&A's Bowie retrospective


What would it be like to enter David Bowie’s brain – or at least the creative part of it? God knows, but the V&A have given it their best shot. We were equal parts excited and skeptical when we heard London’s most vibrant museum would be hosting a Bowie retrospective. How, after all, do you do the man justice without gushing like a teenager? Somehow, though, the V&A have struck a balance.

David Bowie Is follows a series of pop retrospectives at the V&A, including, last year, a major exhibition on Postmodernism and an homage to all things Annie Lennox. We can’t help thinking that Bowie must have seen both – and isn’t it wonderful timing this comes out while his album sits atop the charts? He’s a clever man, Bowie. And a creative one, as we are reminded.

Over 300 hundred objects have been brought together for a truly immersive gallery experience. Music plays through headphones as you approach walls of film; Little Wonder plays as you walk towards the outfit he wore in the video; screens flash, walls have holes in them, inviting you to fill in the blanks of newspaper quotes, mirrors show you yourself. At times it feels as though you’ve landed in a documentary; next moment you’re dreaming. And was that lavender we could smell? You are always in the room, daydreaming, and not a second of it is dull.

Amid the storyboards for music promos (Ashes to Ashes) and walls of portraits (from Masayoshi Sukita to Herb Ritts) dances the man himself. It’s a testament to Bowie’s charisma and stage presence that the most mesmerizing element is old video footage, whether his camp Labyrinth turn or a Heroes performance on an Odean sized screen. This show isn’t the be all and end all of Bowie, and nor does it claim to be, but it gives a good account of his early creative influences, from fashion shoots in Harpers and Queen to the moon landing in 1969. It also reminds us of his unique, awesome cultural impact. In case you forgot.

Previous exhibitions at the V&A have sold out fast, so book tickets now. The tour can be done in an hour but we’d recommend at least two if you want to rifle through the minutiae of paraphanalia. There’s a lot, so be warned: record-collector-types might wet their pants. The gift shop isn’t so well stocked, sadly (save for a few bits like T-shirts and a rather good book to accompany the show).

You don’t have to be a Bowie fan to enjoy this exhibition. But you are anyway, aren’t you?

David Bowie Is, March 23 – August 11, 2013, at the V&A, London. Tickets are available here and you can read our 6-page feature on the show in the current issue of GT, available here and here

Words: Paris Lees

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