In partnership with Gucci

The First International Retrospective


David Bowie Is


Courtesy of V & A

Sound experience by Sennheiser

V & A

23 March - 11 August 2013

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


David Bowie is, surely, one of the 20th (and 21st) Century’s most diverse, re-inventing,culture-filtering,rock/soul/pop/industrial/jungle/avant-garde singer, song-writer,musician,mime,dancer,fashion-icon,actor,designer,artist, and this kaleidoscopically staged, comprehensive exhibition left me with one understandable question: ‘What isn’t David Bowie?’ Selected for imaginative assemblage by V & A Theatre and Performance Curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who were granted unprecedented access to Bowie’s archives for choices, doubtless, a daunting task, the exhibition reflects on his showmanship and influences as star and man, evoking the cultivated, yet paradoxical senses of alienation and spectacle inherent to his ‘70’s onstage creations and beyond. Progressing on from Bowie’s studied focus on, longing for, and, courting of fame, and subsequent rock star hedonism and addiction, it explores the continuing experimentation akin to his abiding curiosity and love of all things innovative, unusual and expressive to this day, as evidenced by newly released LP The Next Day.


David Jones, Mod

Photo by David Wedgbury

Courtesy of V & A


Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London in 1947, the future star man aimed for musical fame after seeing Little Richard perform “Tutti Frutti” in his own outrageously androgynous fashion on telly. Presley too had naturally, instilled the young hopeful with the powerful potency of music, as he had Bowie’s future friend, John Lennon. In 1965, a name change, to avoid comparisons with then rising singer Davey Jones, future Monkees’ frontman, was taken from knife wielding U.S. pioneer Jim Bowie, no doubt, as played by ever cool Richard Widmark opposite John Wayne’s Davy Crockett in Texas epic The Alamo (1960).


David Bowie circa 1970

Courtesy of the V & A


Ironic, as the surname of Bowie’s androgynous alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, debuted in 1972, was later inspired by cult musician Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an off-beat Texan in love with aliens of the UFO variety, credited with starting the underground music genre known as Psychobilly. Formerly Mod, band hopping Bowie’s penchant for drawing on other musician’s styles was firmly smashed with his 1969, moon landing linked hit, ‘Space Oddity’, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s ground breaking film, 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). The BBC played the song over footage of the momentous event, seemingly, unaware that Bowie’s first fictional character, Major Tom had been lost in space! Taking further cues from Kurbrick’s amazingly in synch with its source, A Clockwork Orange (1971), whose senselessly violent street gang the droogs were uniformed in white, one piece outfits which seemed a cross between body stockings and long johns, Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to life with the help of some canny musicians, most notably, intuitive rock virtuoso guitarist, Mick Ronson, and, fashion designer, Freddie Burretti, who notched Bowie’s original costume concept up several octaves colour-wise as envisioned. In Bowie’s case, it would be far too simplistic to state that the rest is rock history at this juncture, as the many, fascinating and intricate re-incarnations following Ziggy must have been far beyond anything he, or his, by then, legendary cult following could have dreamed of.


David Bowie in striped bodysuit, designed by Kansai Yamamoto for Aladdin Sane tour 1973

Photo by Masayoshi Sukita 1973

Courtesy of V & A


As you make your way along the path leading through the many stages of Bowie’s self-styled, oft androgynous metamorphoses via photos, dystopian novels (the titles of which fashionably protruded from pockets), records, short films, music videos, clips of television appearances, countless costumes enabling Bowie’s cornucopia of stage personas, hand scrawled lyrics, posters and blue and yellow platform boots, you are aware that you are following in the steps of a multi-faceted, living legend. Bowie’s career has scaled dizzying heights and taken intermittently gentler dips than most long term rockers have. But as he himself would conclude, any setbacks have only served to fan the flames of creativity and style more fiercely, causing the man formerly known as Ziggy Stardust to ultimately shine more brightly than before. At times, you may be surprised (or not) to even find something of the feeling of a shrine in some segments of this exhibition, such is the depth of connection and, affection firm Bowie fans have to and, for their idol.



The Inner Sanctum of David Bowie Is at the V & A

Courtesy of V & A


I never camped out to buy tickets for any of Bowie’s concerts, or slept on the sidewalk outside Sigma Sound Studios back in Philly, when he was making his album Young Americans there in 1975. But I am, nonetheless a fan, having been lured his way at last by his seminal ’77 anthem ‘Heroes’. Following Bowie’s cha-cha-cha changes from then on through his ‘Let’s Dance’ phase, by the time I caught up to him on his Serious Moonlight Tour, I sat, entranced as any fan could be, literally at his feet, as the dualistic ‘alien’ in oversized yellow and blue suits, seemingly ‘himself’ at last, lead thousands of rapt listeners through a very vibrant vocal re-enactment of his rainbow arched career to date. Since then, I have, to my enrichment, retraced many of the variegated moments of Bowie’s forty + years of stardom thus far, discovering gems of my own.


Bowie during his 'Let's Dance' phase

Courtesy of V & A


Alienation and sexual ambivalence have both been topics Bowie has long effectively and, variously addressed through his music and one can only imagine the impression which those themes, twinned with his spacey, androgynous appearance must have made on the young fans of his Ziggy Stardust era. So much so, that I’m sure many of those early fans, then struggling through their own teenage outsider days are loyal Bowie supporters to this day. I may be an outsider to the nuances of Englishness myself, but I nonetheless, detected a sense of pride among visitors to the exhibition, who, though from round the world, were in the main, natives, that someone as distinctive as Bowie had so spectacularly emerged from a country which had, for so many years struggled to shake off the numbing after effects of the flattening war time Blitz. Born in 1947, Bowie, all too aware of such inherent sensibilities, has ever aimed to offer alternatives to any lingering staidness through his music. Promiscuous by design, ambivalent by nature, young post swinging sixties Bowie confessed to a journo after his Ziggy days to being bisexual. An announcement, seemingly, timed to garner more fans, though it could only be viewed as advantageous for listeners surfacing dualistic sexualities themselves. Bowie’s ten year absence on the music scene, broken by the welcome release of The Next Day was, presumably, due to his renewed roles of husband and father, this time round, for the sake of love, sans sensationalism.


'Where Are We Now?' from Bowie's latest LP The Next Day

Courtesy of V & A


Each and every turning of Bowie’s marvellously varied musical journey is chronicled in this exhibition, via state of the art sound and imaginative visuals, which morph as you move from space to space and its collaborative displays are as fascinating for their importance to and, mirroring of the unfurling the popular culture of their days as they are for their music, fashion, and drama, which combined, propelled former David Jones of Brixton, London into the annals of rock history. In a sweeping performance of sorts amid a room as high as a church, walled on three sides with enlarged screens, fans were wooed, won and engaged as Bowie and late, long blonde haired guitarist Mick Ronson, a rock legend in his own right, stood shoulder to shoulder once more, at Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders’ from Mars penultimate concert at Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973. Young, youngest, older and oldest alike looked up in admiration, some assuming a stance that gave away their youth re-living, via struts that seemed to say, ‘I’ve been there, done that and still got the T-Shirt.’


Bowie and Ronson performing 'Star Man' on Top of the Pops

Photo courtesy of V & A


A rather sad note among the otherwise fun happenstance of pairing the relevant Bowie persona with each of the many costumes on show, designed by the aforementioned Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto and the late Alexander McQueen, without looking at their placards was revisiting the many iconic outfits designed by McQueen.


Bowie in Alexander Mc Queen during his Earthling tour

Courtesy of V & A


Insightful glimpses into Bowie’s creative process are aptly explored here and we’re able to entertain the idea of William Burroughs inspired ‘cut ups’ ourselves. Creatively in charge Bowie’s sketches of now iconic album covers and set designs are on show as well. No stone is left unturned, for among the many rock treasures are good old record bins, with LP covers representing all of the albums Bowie ever made, as well as, for ambivalence’s sake, blank and reworked ones, such as for current album The Next Day, a construct of the revered LP cover of Heroes, subverted.

No one living within the sound of a radio could have missed hearing ‘Space Oddity’ (1969), released nearly in tandem with the Apollo 11 moon landing, or other signature Bowie hits: ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ (‘70), ‘Changes’ (’71) ‘Life on Mars?’ (’71), ‘Oh! You Pretty Things (’71), ‘Starman’ (’72), ‘Jean Genie’ (’73), ‘Rebel, Rebel’ (’74), ‘Fame’ (’75), ‘Golden Years’ (’76), ‘Sound and Vision’ (’77), ‘Heroes’ (’79), ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ (’79), to name but a few of Bowie’s iconic late ‘60’s, 70’s songs. ‘80’s favourites include ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (’80), ‘Fashion’ (‘80’), ‘Modern Love’ (’83), ‘Let’s Dance’ (’83), ‘Loving the Alien’ (’84), ‘Blue Jean’ (’84), at which point, with changing tides, I digressed, only to re-attune my ears to Bowie again via the collective enthusiasm sounded with his latest release, the LP The Next Day, a revisiting of his artistically fruitful Berlin years, (’77-’79) which, in the aftermath of his cocaine addiction, yielded a trio of intriguing LP’s still seen as some of his finest in conjunction with experimental musician, composer/producer, Brian Eno: Low (’77), Heroes (’77) and Lodger (79).

For even the most casual Bowie listener, the sound here will truly, be something to sigh for, in fact, it’s so ‘live’, thoughtfully collaged, state of the art and intoxicating that, combined with the heady displays surrounding you, it could well induce repeatedly happy marathon Bowie listenings thereafter. Instruments Bowie himself played are spotlighted here and there, designed to inflame fans’ fantasies.



Personas on parade at David Bowie Is

Courtesy of V & A


On more than one occasion, when I thought I must surely, be nearing the end of this sprawling, artfully arranged exhibition, its’ rooms opened up, displaying at one point, a cluster of huge cubes anchored near a high ceiling on which bubble animations ran clips of icons through the ages, influential to everyone, including Bowie. A more pared down space reflecting on the pre-MTV Berlin years Bowie shared with collaborators Brian Eno and Iggy Pop features overlapping projections of Weimer Germany which spurned late ‘70’s underground noir perspectives. Bowie also enjoys painting and some of his works are on display, here, a modernistic likeness of one Jim Osterberg, Jr. aka Iggy Pop among them. An early synth used on Low, Heroes and Lodger, a gift to Bowie from Eno afterwards, is shadowed in unpretentious glory. Bowie’s well received stage portrayal of Elephant Man John Merrick on Broadway in 1980 in the aftermath of these years, without the use of makeup, put his experiences with movement, mime and acting to excellent use and is regarded today as a definitive performance.


David Bowie in The Elephant Man on Broadway

Courtesy of V & A


Television clips of Bowie show him performing live in Da-Da inspired ringmaster suit and man dress respectively on hugely popular late night New York series, Saturday Night Live in Dec. 1979, at which time his vocals were rather challengingly backed by none other than late New York scenester of song Klaus Nomi, and fellow performer, Joey Arias.


Bowie on Saturday Night Live - Dec. 1979

Courtesy of V & A


Earlier on, we’d seen Bowie miming on film in Mask ten years before, demonstrating what movement and mime artist Lindsay Kemp had taught him. Japanese Kabuki Theatre, a long term fascination of Bowie’s has intermittently reappeared via his clothing and makeup choices, strongly influencing several of his early stage personas and performance sensibilities.

Films in which Bowie’s mystique featured prominently, among them favourites, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and The Man Who Fell to Earth, are represented in their own space via clips of pivotal, oft stylistic moments, and posters and memorabilia complete this iconic cinematic scene. A mini white seated cinema of sorts was packed with happy viewers, many staying put for more than one screening.


Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Photo courtesy of V & A


A fitting grand finale to the exhibition is comprised of a series of evocative black and white and colour portraits of Bowie during the many and varied stages of his career by Brian Duffy, Terry O’Neill and Masayoshi Sukita. Though Mick Rock’s iconic photos of Bowie and the Spiders from Mars on tour and in performance, many of which are among the highlights of this exhibition, are still ranked by most fans as among the most seminal.


Bowie and Ronson on Tour

Photo by Mick Rock

Courtesy of V & A


This exhibition makes a great argument for buying membership to the V & A, which allows you to visit it as often as you’d like, whenever you’d like. It also reminds you that life is short, and the icons you looked up to when you were young are now much older than you or, they, ever thought they’d be. But above all, David Bowie Is affords rare glimpses into the life and times of a real live, creative legend.


Bowie with Photo of himself with William Burroughs

Courtesy of the V&A

Editor’s Note: A lone, glaring miss-fact noted in the opening section framing the time in which Bowie’s talents first emerged, in that it was stated that in 1967, late Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein committed suicide. In actual fact, the ruling following the Westminster inquest related to the case was “accidental overdose”.


PLEASE NOTE: DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND, ONLINE TICKETS FOR THIS EXHIBITION HAVE NOW SOLD OUT. Tickets are available to purchase at the Museum in advance or on the day of your visit. You are advised to arrive at the V&A for when the Museum opens at 10.00 for the best chance of purchasing a ticket. Please note tickets bought on the day may not be for immediate entry to the exhibition, but for later on that day. The price for a Full Adult ticket is £15.50. David Bowie is Victoria and Albert Museum London SW7 2RL Please enter via the Secretariat Gate/Museum Reception to the right hand side of the museum on Cromwell Road (ALL OTHER ENTRANCES WILL BE UNAVAILABLE) and ensure you have your ticket ready. - Please only come at the entry time on your ticket. You will not be admitted before this time. Latecomers will not be admitted. - Please note that for additional evening sessions, the exhibition closes at 21:45 (9:45pm) and all visitors MUST have left the museum by 22:00 (10:00pm). *Children under 12 are admitted for free when accompanied by a paying adult, and do require a ticket. Please select the free under-12s tickets from the bottom of the pricing list when completing your ticket purchases. **V&A Members enjoy free entry to exhibitions and DO NOT need to pre-book. Please ensure you select your correct session date prior to checkout. TICKETS CANNOT BE EXCHANGED OR REFUNDED.




Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved