What’s Going On At the V&A
David Bowie is…what? Who? Glam-rock Starman? Elusive father? Fashion idol? The emaciated yet stylish Thin White Duke?
This is a question that the V&A’s phenomenally successful new exhibition, dedicated to the man himself, attempts to answer by taking us on a whirlwind trip through Bowie’s illustrious life and career.
On entering the ride of David Bowie’s life, you are handed the Sennheiser headphones which will guide you through the haphazard arrangement, and confronted by the words “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.” Bowie’s words ring like an echo of Roland Barthes famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” and they seems appropriate to what Bowie is about; everyone seems to have a different opinion of the man who finds art in everything he does, and who’s whole life has been a masterpiece.
We can catch a glimpse of that masterpiece through the odd pieces of musical, literary, and fashion paraphernalia scattered throughout the V&A. We move from a seventeen-year-old David Jones’ first television experience as a spokesperson for “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men”, through to Ziggy Stardust and his connection with the space exploration programme, and then to the drawings and scribbled notes of the gaunt Thin White Duke, Bowie’s self-destructive lifestyle shining through cabaret-style suits made seemingly for a skeleton.
The chameleon’s influences seem to be just as eclectic and ever-changing as his style; a collection of Bowie’s favourite novels flap like birds from the ceiling, movie posters and scribbled doodles accompany lyrics and album concepts, and images of Marlene Dietrich and Lindsay Kemp accompany videos of Bowie’s own artistic performances. Indeed, it appears that the V&A has not missed much; not only are we confronted by a wall of retro television sets, each of which, Clockwork Orange style, show a different Bowie music video, there is also a room dedicated to his performances as an actor in films such as “The Man who Fell to Earth” and “Labyrinth.” After all, it is arguably as an actor that Bowie finds his true self; like an actor, he is never one thing, forever reinventing himself to define the rapidly changing times and keep up with commercial demand. As Bowie said, “all art is unstable,” and it is this willingness to accept instability that has kept him in the spotlight for almost half a century.
For this is not simply a journey through Bowie’s life; it is a journey through the last fifty years. This is largely lost on my twenty year-old self, but it is clear in the reactions of older visitors around me, some of whom seem almost tearfully overwhelmed at points, and some of whom spontaneously combust into flames of song and dance; perhaps either forgetting they were in a public place, or just wanting to put on a show in true Bowie fashion. My dad said that walking through the exhibit was like watching his life flash before his eyes, which is a testament to just how far Bowie has permeated our society; he shaped the times which defined generation after generation, and in this way he has provided the dress-code and soundtrack to thousands of people’s lives.
So, what is David Bowie? It is impossible to know; he is an actor, just as we all are, but one who has led us through the decades in a burst of beautifully outrageous outfits and tragically hopeful songs; and I, for one, will continue to follow.