“This bizarre man has commercialised the business of being a freak.” Not my words, but how a sniffy and stuffy old BBC TV reporter described David Bowie back in 1973. Now, 40 years on, he’s commercialised the business of being an icon, and the esteemed establishment that is the V&A in London have devoted an entire exhibition – their biggest ever – to the man, the legend, and the first pop star to declare himself gay, even if the truth – never something he’s ever let get in the way of a good quote – was ever so slightly different.
What Bowie really was was the world’s first metrosexual, says the man who invented the term, Mark Simpson. From couture to culture, the indelible imprint of this ruthless recycler of ideas is everywhere. Often copied, never quite equalled, in terms of presentation you can draw a bold bright line from Ziggy Stardust to Madonna and Lady whatsername; they just took less risks by shoring his influence of the avant garde and impressionistic leanings – in other words, more Dada than Gaga. Mind you, Madge rejected the V&A’s overtures to stage a visual examination of her career. Bowie, on the other hand, had no such qualms about becoming a living museum piece and was “extremely flattered” at the proposal, despite the V&A’s insistence they’re not paying him a penny for the privilege.
Critics have been falling over themselves to lavish praise on this fascinating dip into the well swung performer’s extensive archive, a tantalizing taster of everything David Bowie’s accumulated and assimilated in his 50 year career. And as one surveys this 300-piece multimedia extravaganza of satin and tat, the dusty relics, the private movies and the hastily scribbled jotter pages, the most striking thing is not necessarily any particular individual content, but what an absolutely obsessive personality he has. Bowie’s always been so obsessively focused on himself that (infamous Mr Fish dress aside) he’s managed to keep hold of virtually everything, even the keys to a rented Berlin apartment that he really should have given back. Bowie’s now set himself up as the historian of his own identities. It has to be said, it gives the impression of a constantly calculating control and personal preoccupation with a legacy and projection of his future worth. All architectonic cheekbones and implacable will, Bowie’s the ultimate narcissist and the V&A the divine shrine to worship at his all-conquering vanity.
There’s costumes aplenty, with particular emphasis on the flamboyant 1970s creations by the likes of Kansai Yamamoto and Freddie Burretti. Most confounding of all is Bowie’s original coke spoon, a pertinent reminder of why he was pseudonymously known as the Thin White Duke, though one suspects it was nothing more than a toot tool for top-ups, and he’s leaving the ladle in the closet for now. The attention to detail is fascinating, if flawed, though. The museum even pipes out his signature scent – Paloma Picasso’s Minotaure.
There’s a beautiful 320-page catalogue accompanying the show, where we learn from lezza professor Camille Paglia that Bowie enjoyed a life of bi until at least 1984, which may well upset the baseless anti-heterodoxy perpetuated by all those Phil Collins fans; you know, the footballing Sun-reading types who only came on board with the stadium draw mega-success of Let’s Dance the year before.
The book isn’t without its mistakes though. As with the show itself, the V&A has been slightly hampered by Team Bowie’s largely hands-off policy. When I co-authored BowieStyle, a book not dissimilar to the museum’s own, back in 2000, one of his staff emailed David to tell him he’d seen some of the early proofs and asked if it was OK to correct anything he knew to be wrong. Within seconds the reply came back, “Correct nothing!” The same staffer was also instructed by Bowie not to get involved in this exhibition either. And it’s the titular star’s ambivalent attitude in order to keep those myths going, maintain that mystique, so that the real David ‘Bowie’, if Mr Jones himself even knows who that is, is never going to be fully revealed. Alas, it also means a series of enforced errors could have been avoided.
Wary that the exhibition could be seen as a vanity project, the subject opened his vaults and pretty much let them get on with it. Well, that’s the official line, anyhow. The expert marketeer’s only public comment a brief but cleverly worded distancing statement which the V&A confessed to me “worked wonders” for their publicity machine. The curators have been notified of many of the offending articles by more than one Bowie author, but their attitude seems to be that they would see what they could do but that it is “very expensive” to change captions! The age of grand illusion is alive and well and running the show from a New York condo. The other bugbear is that some important costumes, specifically a pair of tour suits from 1974, as well as iconic Aladdin Sane costumes are displayed so high and behind fuzzy gauze projection screens as to be almost unviewable. Quibbles aside, “David Bowie Is” proves that one man (and his considerable roll call of helpers) can affect art, fashion and film. The music? The music is outside.
“David Bowie Is” is on until Aug 11 at the V&A, London and then Sept 25 – Nov 27 at the AGO, Toronto, Canada.
A detailed list of the errors found in the exhibition can be found here: