"David Bowie Is…" V&A – art exhibition review

David Bowie Is…
V&A, London.
From 23 March-28 July 2013

The V&A have recently opened a major retrospective of around 300 items from David Bowie’s vast private archive. Frazer Cooke has been over to check it out for us.

I once read a theory which posed that if Madonna had never existed, popular culture wouldn’t look any different. I was reminded of this at the V&A’s Press launch for its upcoming David Bowie exhibition. The impetus for the exhibition being that Bowie’s influence is not felt just in the sphere of music but throughout popular culture in art, fashion, dance and visual arts ”“ indeed most of the things the V&A covers in its remit. The claim that Bowie’s tentacles have snaked into most facets of culture over the last half century is not new. The description of him, so often repeated that it has become a cliché, is that he is a \’musical chameleon’, switching styles as often as he changes costumes.

If Bowie had never existed it is certain we would be bereft of numerous great songs, not a claim that could be landed at Ms. Ciccone’s door. But are claims of Bowie’s influence overstated? Is he an artistic collaborator or pop culture thief? There is plenty of evidence (just Google it) that Madonna has simply stolen her entire output; music, lyrics, videos, costumes and even her \’look’ (Monroe, Garbo, Harlow, Dietrich) while Bowie, on the other hand, has been quite overt in naming his influences, from Clockwork Orange for Starman, German Expressionism on Diamond Dogs, Kabuki theatre in Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, even the Kenny Everett Video Show apparently influenced Ashes to Ashes.

Unpicking the influences in Bowie’s work is a full time job; it’s probably why we need a retrospective. The V&A have been keen to state that the exhibition is their take on Bowie, it isn’t being done with his involvement. This is after the Observer mistakenly reported Bowie was to co-curate, and the tabloids typically escalated the misconception into an imagined rift with the V&A. Bowie poured soothing oil on the tabloid fabricated fracas in a piquant Facebook post “A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither \’devastated’, \’heartbroken’ nor \’uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

The Exhibition has predictably flustered the dusty guardians of our “high” culture, it’s another populist display aimed at the masses, a demeaning celebrity show undermining the serious art our museums should be concentrating on. Curator Victoria Broakes dismisses these concerns, pointing out that the V&A’s raison d’être is to “inspire creativity”.

Its inspirational nature will be difficult to argue against, with the contribution of audio visualists Fifty Nine Productions who have recently been involved in throwing together events such as Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee and the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. The curators have been given unprecedented access to the David Bowie archive, the limited treasures on display at the press launch were tantalising; Alexander McQueen’s coat from the Earthling cover, Freddie Buretti’s Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit, Natasha Korniloff’s Pierrot costume from “Ashes To Ashes” and handwritten lyrics to “Fame” and “Five Years”.

Perhaps pouring over the exhibition treasures will enlighten us, is Bowie a musical magpie or genuine artistic collaborator and innovator? Is he what T.S. Eliot referred to when he said “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Tickets for “David Bowie Is”¦” are on sale now.

All words Frazer Cooke.

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  1. David Bowie laid the foundation for future music, his creative levels where years ahead of anything else that was around at the time! His lyric’s along with his fearless attitude helped him to structure an unbreakable product that will be around till the end of time.

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