David Bowie is… at the V&A

Our proofreader Liz Tray follows her lifelong love to the V&A for this remarkable exhibition…

It’s been slim pickings for us Bowie fans in the last six years or so. We’d gotten used to what even his biographer called retirement and had little choice but to accept the state of things. Was it all a ruse? On January 8th 2013, his 66th birthday, the world awoke to a new song (Where Are We Now?), which was followed in March by an album, The Next Day, acclaimed as one of the records of the year. Walking around the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition, one can’t help feel that this master manipulator has been planning his return all along.

The curators claim that he’s had no part in its creation, simply allowing access to his archive, which is said to number some 70,000 items, 300 of which made it in. The myriad rooms on show lead us on his journey – from Brixton to Bromley, from Soho to New York, showing us the pop star as an assimilator of cultures. The first thing that hits you is that he has kept everything. I mean, everything, from costumes to handwritten lyrics to album artwork to stage designs.

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Of course, this canonisation sits at the traditionalist V&A, and some have questioned whether this exhibition should be housed in such esteemed surroundings at all. But, walking through each room, one can only be cowed at such a seemingly endless font of creativity. The state-of-the-art sonic experience (created by sponsor Sennheiser) filtering through your headphones is dazzling – from Life on Mars to Heroes, from Changes to Let’s Dance, from Rebel Rebel to Station to Station. Music plays as you stand in front of the relevant exhibit, then switches to a different song as you leave the room. It dovetails perfectly, and metaphorically, with the man’s own creative restlessness and endless sense of reinvention. He has always abandoned a brilliant idea at the height of its popularity, finding an even better approach immediately after.

The exhibition’s aim is to set Bowie the autodidact in a wider artistic context, to explore how he articulates and synthesises the avant-garde for a mass audience. There is no particular chronology here, as artefacts are gathered and presented in clusters. The costumes in particular are extraordinary – Kansai Yamamoto’s Ziggy Stardust outfits, each more skimpy than the last; Ola Hudson’s 1976 Thin White Duke costume, a cool black waistcoat/white shirt combo; the silver pierrot from the iconic video of Ashes to Ashes; the 1996 Brit Awards ensemble, by Thierry Mugler, with silver skeleton earring and Katherine Hamnett kitten heels; and Alexander McQueen’s creations – Glastonbury 2000 (patterned, classy), and Union Jack/Earthling tour coats (torn and distressed), which could be by no other designer. And finally, the turquoise Life on Mars suit, which, famously, had to be let out (not taken in) so Kate Moss could wear it for a photoshoot.

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At the point when you think your eyes/ears can take no more, the main room, and its 60-foot-high floor to ceiling video walls, takes the breath away. Each has boxes of costumes inlaid behind the gauze screens, which play video clips of various tours, with flawless concert-level sound. This is a room to spend plenty of time in. There’s something wonderfully disorientating about watching footage from his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour on the screen while the very outfit being worn hangs casually on a mannequin a few feet away. The final room, added it seems almost as an aside, gathers together evidence of his wider pop culture influence on everything from fashion (Gucci are the sponsor, of course) to advertising. There is little here of the private man, save for some lyric sheets and Ziggy tour roadmaps, but that’s always the way it’s been – you see the version of him that he wants you to see. At the entrance hangs a 1995 quote: “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”

What a journey taken, for both Bowie and the watcher. A fizzing collation of ideas, a feast for the eyes and ears, all contained in an exhibition that no-one saw coming following a new album that no-one knew existed. The highest selling exhibition, 100,000 tickets and counting, in V&A history. England’s Elvis has come home.

David Bowie Is runs to August 11th 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Nearest Tube: South Kensington.