It is now 40 years since the Aladdin Sane tour when the red and blue lightening flash first made its appearance. It’s almost 40 years to the day when I first saw him perform and I am excited to be able to see the wealth of items (over 300) that the V&A have selected from the David Bowie archive to put on show in this amazing exhibition. The exhibition is sold out apart from tickets available on the day so I hear. WE ARE STILL WATCHING HIM!
The exhibition spans the 66 years of David Bowie’s life with particular emphasis on the years from the late ’60s to the present time. It takes us through the early influences on Bowie and you get a sense of the culture of the ’50s and ’60s, the music, art and literature that he would have grown up with. There are items from the pre-Ziggy years and although I want to see every item and read every piece of information, I can sense the expectation and anticipation of Ziggy Stardust waiting ahead. And of course, there he suddenly is, on a large screen with his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder singing Starman on Top of the Pops; the iconic moment from 1972 burned into the psyches of myself and millions of others, declaring that there is life out there after all. It is really quite moving to see the actual costume worn there in the flesh in front of the screen. From here on the exhibition explodes with the creativity of David Bowie.
Bowie says he didn’t know whether he wanted to be an artist, writer or musician and these sides of his creativity are on display throughout the exhibition. Original hand-written lyrics, costume and set designs, album cover ideas and music scores are displayed amongst the costumes he has worn on stage and video. It is amazing to see these items in real life; the Yamamoto Ziggy costumes, the platform sandals with palm-tree heels, the Life on Mars blue suit and the black and white Thin White Duke outfits to name just a few. The Alexander McQueen frock coats are quite beautiful. And interspersed throughout the exhibition hand-written song lyrics hang on the walls.
As you walk around, commentary and music is available through a headphone system that senses where you are in room and in which direction you are facing so you get the information and music appropriate to where you are standing. There is a lot of audiovisual going on throughout which is just what you’d expect in a Bowie exhibition.
You gradually walk through the decades and changing personas of David Bowie surrounded by costumes, music and video and there is a sense of becoming more and more immersed in his world. There is much to look at and take in and I was there for three hours but it is the final area where you really see David Bowie and for me the real high spot of the exhibition. Here there are screens the size of 3-storied houses showing some of the performances over the years. We see Ziggy, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke and later incarnations including Bowie on the Reality Tour.
At one point there are three versions of Heroes being shown and walking around you get the right version of the audio depending on where you are in the room and how you are facing. Behind the screens there are more costumes, back or front-lit at different times between the projected performances. This area was the highlight on top of so many highlights, where I could sit and watch the man I’ve seen many times live, do his stuff which is to perform. Being in the middle of these screens was mesmerizing and nostalgic and took me back through my own decades and I am reminded of the latest song, Where are we Now? Looking around the room I was aware of how captivated everyone seemed to be, caught in Bowie’s spell.
The exhibition is amazing and David Bowie is beautiful throughout. The V&A have done a tremendous job in putting together and presenting this material in a manner that does justice to the man who sold the world. It is both theatre and exhibition.
Aladdin Sane looks on from David Bowie is, a touring exhibition from the V&A which is on at the Groninger Museum, Netherlands until 13 March 2016. Photo Gerhard Taatgen