Culture: Visual Arts

Beige Reviews: David Bowie Is

(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Practically everyone in the universe has been influenced by the Brixton-born cracked actor. From boys putting on make-up for the first time to aspiring hot tramps and disco divas.

Bowie is also responsible for launching a million imitation haircuts – that red, spiky mullett –  for lesbians who were all in love with his androgynous beauty.

First of all, it’s a really exciting show and you are completely absorbed in the world of Bowie. There’s 300 objects to take in – ranging from the fashion, to the changing looks, photography, video clips of concerts and most of all the music which is provided in the personal headsets and also from speakers dotted around the exhibition.

I was in a Bowie universe all of my own. It brought back memories of my older sister – a huge Bowie fan (although she did prefer guitarist Mick Ronson), with her purple eyeshadow, green nail varnish, and voluminous black velvet coat. I thought she looked great, but the local boys all took the piss out of her. Obviously, they were not Bowie fans.

The show launches with an Aladdin Sane outfit, the Tokyo Pop Suit by Kansai Yamamoto from 1973. It’s a fabulous black PVC outfit with huge splayed trouser legs that was Kabuki theatre inspired, and offset with red platform boots with thick black soles.

Image is everything to Bowie, and as he says, the suit was “everything I wanted… outrageous, provocative and unbelievably hot under the lights.”

© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012

We are far from the world of vacuous, manufactured pop stars. The exhibition pays tribute to the early influences on Bowie, from Warhol to the Weimar Republic. Lindsay Kemp was a huge influence on the singer’s look and style. From the mime artist, Bowie learnt probably more about the power of make-up and physical theatre than anyone else. “His day to day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever,” he recalls.

What’s worth remembering is that while Bowie was singing about Ziggy Stardust, with themes of alienation, David Cassidy was riding high in the charts with I Think I Love You. All very well and good for the screaming girl and boy fans, but certainly in a totally different league.

The photography is glorious and looking close up, you can see how flawless Bowie’s skin is – obviously with a little help from the Foundation Fairy. The singer chose to work with some of the best photographers of his generation, such as Brian Duffy who created the image of Aladdin Sane with the iconic lightning scar.

We are told that the gold circle painted on Bowie’s forehead was a variant on the HIndu bindi, which represents a spiritual third eye. I might be a little churlish but I found the deep and meaningful explanations bordering on the ponderous. Do we really care what the mark signifies? It just looks fab and I’m happy enough with that.

Bowie also worked with the best fashion designers, and there’s a fantastic distressed Union Jack coat, co-designed with Alexander McQueen on display, with scorch marks and what appear to be holes made by cigarettes stubbed out on it.

Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3. © Frank W Ockenfels 3

The singer/songwriter’s Thin White Duke era in the mid 1970s is somewhat glossed over, when Bowie went a bit weird, making pro-Fascist remarks, along with expressing his admiration to Adolf Hitler and his wish to rule the world. But he later retracted his statements, and maybe we can also give him a bit of latitude as he was taking massive amounts of cocaine at the time.

My personal favourite item in the show  is the Pierrot or ‘Blue Clown’ costume for the Ashes to Ashes video made by Natasha Korniloff in 1980. The video is high-art camp, and shows Bowie at his most ethereal beauty.

I loved watching the video of Boys Keep Swinging. Bowie does drag so well. The three backing singers are all his very different queen personas, and one looks uncannily like artist Grayson Perry’s alter ego, Alice. As I said, Bowie’s influence is far reaching.

David Bowie’s entire career is well documented, and it was also good to see his 2013 song Where Are We Now? We have the older man, a 66-year-old with sadness in his eyes. And he still looks good.

David Bowie Is, V&A Museum until 11 August 2013

Words: Fiona Keating

Digital arts channel The Space has published five short films, made in collaboration with the V&A Museum. Each film explores the genius of David Bowie to coincide with the first full-scale retrospective of his career.

Featuring insight from the curators of the exhibition, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, music journalist Paul Morley as well as film maker Alan Yentob, the films examine the many facets of David Bowie, as well as the fascination with his creative output across the past five decades.

The five films are:

An Exhibition Overview from Victoria Broaches

Bowie in Berlin – Paul Morley

Cracked Actor – Alan Yentob talking about his iconic Arena film

Space Oddity – Geoffrey March on that famous track

David Bowie Is – Paul Morley on how he came up with the exhibition title

Click here to view the five films:


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