Space for an oddity: David Bowie’s V&A retrospective

Reactivated Bowiemania is spreading from the pop charts to the queues outside the latest blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The singer has emerged from a decade-long silence with The Next Day, the fastest-selling UK album this year. On its heels follows a David Bowie retrospective that ramps the superlatives up another notch: it is the fastest-selling show in the museum’s history.

The exhibition’s main resource is the singer’s grandly named David Bowie Archive, which has supplied the V&A with scores of stage outfits, handwritten lyrics and memorabilia. These represent a treasure trove of Bowiana, from a 1967 letter from a soon-to-be-sacked manager about the young Dave Jones’s name change – “I am adviseing [sic] you”, it reads, “that I have now changed Davie’s name to David Bowie” – to the singer’s preparatory sketch of the surreally outsized tuxedo he wore to sing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979. “Access into and out of to be easy,” he writes on the sketch: always the eye for detail.

There is much to enjoy in this archival cornucopia – but not its routine presentation. The exhibition treats Bowie’s rise as a heroic tale of self-determination and cultural mobility, the boy from a south London suburb who single-handedly channelled avant-garde art, theatre and literature into the hit parade.

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author,” reads a 1995 quote from Bowie at the entrance. But nearby some curatorial blurb contradicts the singer’s disavowal of authorial intention, turning him into a blandly universal symbol of self-authorship. “David Bowie showed us we could be who we wanted to be,” it announces.

To get the most from the exhibition you must follow the spirit of Bowie’s “unstable art” and look for what has been left out or suppressed. The verboten jollity of “The Laughing Gnome” is a good place to start. The singer’s 1967 novelty song about meeting a funny little man in “scarlet and grey, chuckling away” is tactfully tucked into a vitrine, silently represented by a sheet of paper showing the drum score. It’s a silly song that became an embarrassment to Bowie, but it represents a side of his personality that the show fails to engage with: his sense of the absurd. (During the supposedly “reclusive” silence of the past 10 years he popped up playing cameos in the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras and an episode of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.)

In 1974 with William Burroughs

A room showing a cavalcade of artistic and literary inspirations does a good job of conveying Bowie’s cultural voracity. A picture of Oscar Wilde hangs next to Marlene Dietrich. A poster for Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis is placed beside a woodcut by the Expressionist art group Die Brücke. Books hang from the ceiling: RD Laing’s The Divided Self, Camus’ The Outsider, Orwell’s 1984. Most fascinating of all is a hokey promotional film made in 1969 called The Mask in which Bowie plays an insane mime artist; it followed two years’ training with the outré mime maestro and choreographer Lindsay Kemp.

Bowie’s achievement, inaugurated when “Space Oddity” charted in 1969, was to synthesise these different strands of culture into pop hits that made girls scream and boys gawp. What made him do so, other than the hunger for fame? The headphone guide you wear as you walk round the exhibition has a recording of the ex-art student saying in a 1970s interview that he was unable to decide what to be: a mime act, a singer, a songwriter or a painter – but that reason is surely too glib.

More revealing is the former south Londoner’s self-deprecating reminiscence of travelling on the Underground in his teens with books that were “far above my head” poking out of his pocket “so I could look deep”. With that offhand remark we are reminded that self-authorship isn’t just a heroic assertion of will – it can also be a form of fabrication. “I wanted to be well-known,” Bowie tells us through the headphones. Themes of opportunism and forgery persist throughout his work: the new album ends with him teasingly singing, “I am a seer, I am a liar.” But the exhibition chooses not to investigate too closely.

The costumes reveal his restless theatricality: the Kansai Yamamoto-designed swollen stripy bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour; his “Starman” outfit – “ultra violence in Liberty fabrics” as he called it; the Pierrot look he adopted for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. Worn by faceless mannequins clustered round the exhibition, they have a somewhat lifeless air; happily, however, there are numerous screens showing films of Bowie disporting in them. Most dramatically a floor-to-ceiling screen shows previously unseen concert footage from a Philadelphia gig in 1974.

His striped bodysuit for the 1973 ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour

It is hard now to appreciate how startling the singer was in his 1970s heyday. Even in comparison with the freaks and longhairs of flower power, he came across as other-worldly – preternaturally sculpted, androgynously beautiful, moving with balletic grace but also a kind of animal intensity, a libidinal lightning rod. The effect is almost irrecuperable in the age of imitators such as Lady Gaga; yet there are moments when you feel the electric charge leap across the decades – such as Terry O’Neill’s astonishing promo photo for Diamond Dogs showing the singer seated impassively holding the lead of a leaping Great Dane, a contrasting study in poise and ferocity.

Songs from the canon – “Heroes”, “Space Oddity”, “The Jean Genie” – play over the headphones as you walk round the rooms, activated automatically as you approach an exhibit. The technical trick is neat, although a confusion of signals leads to overlap. One moment you might be listening to “Boys Keep Swinging”, only for Gary Kemp to butt in with unwanted information about Bowie’s influence on Spandau Ballet as you step back.

The sexual subtext to “Boys Keep Swinging” (“Nothing stands in your way/ When you’re a boy”) is duly logged. It deserves more depth, however. In 1972 Bowie became the first major pop star to say that he was gay. Whether he really was is another matter – the precise nature of his sexuality was fluid – but he was a foundational figure for later generations of gay musicians.

Red platform boots for the 1973 ‘Aladdin Sane’ tour

I would have preferred a room devoted to his “queering” of the charts instead of the one about his film and theatre work, which elides the inconvenient fact that his acting is at best ordinary. Similarly his musical decline from the mid-1980s is glossed over. His pub rock outfit Tin Machine “dismayed many fans”, the curatorial commentary is forced to note, before rallying optimistically – “but can be seen as another defiant refusal to ‘fix’ his identity as a performer.”

The exhibition is hamstrung by its hagiographic engagement with its subject. In contrast to the thought-provoking new album, it offers a dismayingly uncritical account of Bowie’s extraordinary body of work. Following the sudden arrival of The Next Day – which the exhibition’s organisers didn’t know about and have hurriedly had to incorporate into the show – David Bowie Is feels flat and unimaginative. Or perhaps the juxtaposition of album and retrospective is some sort of fiendishly clever act of image manipulation; proof that Bowie isn’t ready for the museum yet.

‘David Bowie Is’, V&A, London, from today until August 11.

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