Wowie Bowie: The V&A does blockbuster with David Bowie is...

By Richard Moss | 20 March 2013

Exhibition review: David Bowie is... V&A, London until July 28 2013

a film still of David Bowie playing a guitar in a film installation at the V&A
Footage from the concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in the V&A's Bowie blockbuster.© Photo Richard Moss
David Bowie is...quite simply, stunning. There have been mutterings, distancing from the man himself and a pair of unlikely precursors in the Kylie and Annie Lennox shows, but this immersive pop journey through the David Bowie archive proves the V&A really knows its stuff.

It’s rare for a single museum exhibition to have such a grasp of spectacle, but with its clever use of sound and vision (to coin a phrase), this show justifies the hype - and the pre-ticket sales.

How many people born in the last 60 years have a favourite Bowie period? Mine, like most, is the seventies, thanks to an older brother whose Bowie vinyl collection of Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dorey and Ziggy Stardust bought a bit of glam into our Formica and hessian household.

The decade was Bowie’s best – the apogee of a chameleon career. Thankfully the V&A concurs, and the platform decade looms large.

Entering these theatrical rooms with their film clips, clever installations and iconic costumes is like wandering onto a film set that sends you full-pelt back in time.

It's a wonderfully immersive journey with a soundtrack, courtesy of Sennheiser radio headphones, mixing interviews and classic tracks that effortlessly fade in and out as you enter different zones and approach exhibits and screens.

a photo of the David Bowie exhibition
© Photo by Richard Moss
Costumes are everywhere - on faceless Bowie-esque mannequins; the Pierrot clown from Ashes to Ashes, the suit from the Thin White Duke, the striped Alladin Sane body suit with loon pants.

But this is more than just a costume show. The Starman quilted two piece number is sited within a multi-screen, mirrored stage - seventies Top of the Pops style - with a film of Bowie performing on TOTP behind. It's difficult to drag yourself away.

Another quilted outfit - as worn on the Ziggy Stardust album cover - lies within a case as though it were an Egyptian mummy or a holy relic. For some it probably is.

Others are positioned high on podiums that disappear into the shadows as grainy footage flickers across them or as videos spark to life on banks of TV screens. The result is that the enigmatic Bowie emerges god-like.

Even his chequered film and stage career, laid bare here in a no-holds-barred trawl through everything from early art house to the song and dance routine of Absolute Beginners, will have you filling your LoveFilm wish list with awkward words like Labyrinth and Basquiat.

There are what might be termed traditional display cases to look at too, containing lyric sheets, stage designs, recording notes, sketches, a cocaine spoon (Bowie kept it in his pocket while recording Diamond Dogs) and a synth used to create soundscapes on Low, Heroes and Lodger - gifted by Brian Eno.

There's even the apartment keys and transport map from his Berlin years – commemorated here in a stark black room decorated with re-hab paintings of Iggy Pop.

Put it all together and it’s pure unadulterated immersion in the Bowie myth and artifice. But the final space delivers the knock-out blow. Ziggy Stardust body suits and flamboyant Kansai Yamamoto creations for the Aladdin Sane tour stand within a vast gauze cinema screen.

By the time it gets to the excerpt from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, DA Pennebaker’s 1973 film, the volume is ramped up so high it’s like you’re in the crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon. Never has it been so easy to wander into a museum exhibition and be entertained.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Friday). Tickets £9-£12.50 (family ticket £23-£37), book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @V_and_A.

More pictures:

a photo of a film installation with manneqins displayed within movie footage of David Bowie
© Photo Richard Moss
a photo an installation with a mannequin with David Bowie featured in a film behind
© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of a film still featring a shjot of the earth seen from space and a still of David Bowie in the Space Oddity video
© Photo Richard Moss
a photo of a mannequin with the David Bowie Ashes to Ashes pierot costume on it
© Photo Richard Moss
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Have always loved the clown suit.Very beautiful.
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