Review of the David Bowie is… exhibition at the V&A for VandOak.com

Originally published on VandOak.com (domain currently not active)

David Bowie: 9 Lessons in Life
Anastasia Grabova reflects on the philosophies of an idol

Through a hallway lined with marble relics and overlooking the grand manicured lawns of the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, I walked into a monumental experience; a retrospective of David Bowie’s life, work and influences.

I experienced the press preview amid a flurry of journalists, each with an orange sticker on their coats, some snapping away at every sight with their digital SLRs, some leaning against a wall to scribble a fleeting, urgent thought, the odd bulky film camera being arranged at an opportune moment in a temporarily empty space, curators being interviewed beside the most prized exhibits.

But despite all this, it was made easier to focus on the works by the headset transmitting David Bowie’s music, and occasionally his reflective, resonant voice. There really is no other way of looking at Ziggy’s spaceman suits than to the sound of Starman.

With the faces of people that Bowie was influenced by hanging down from the ceiling, amid a flock of books he has read and absorbed, all the while immersed in his music, the visitor is instantly transported into this iconic musician’s imagination.

The exhibition, which opens its doors to the public this Saturday 23rd March, is a physical collage of the things that have inspired Bowie throughout his career. It’s a peek into his, sometime literal scrapbooks, and ones that are a pleasure to get lost in.

David Bowie Is… the title of V&A’s highly anticipated retrospective throws up so many delicious answers to its implied question that even when you leave the exhibition, you feel as if you’re still floating in a Bowie bubble. “David Bowie is all around you” is the message stamped confidently above some dozen television screens, each one scrolling through a plethora of images that have defined British pop culture of the past 50 years: Kate Moss emblazoned with Aladdin Sane’s red and blue lightning bolt; the Apollo 11 moon landing, during which the BBC played Space Oddity in its coverage; Tilda Swinton with orange Bowie hair, androgynously dressed.

Bowie’s influence is far-reaching, extending well beyond his music and into the worlds of film, art, fashion, theatre. It is staggering to see, all in one place, just how much one person can achieve; how he grew to be an icon of popular culture, all the while rebelling against established notions of fame, and often acting like the antithesis of it all.

Among the outrageous costumes, sometimes moving, and sometimes hilarious film clips (Labyrinth anyone?), and to the soundtrack of his musical career, lie inspiring nuggets that hint at Bowie’s philosophies on life. It is these that I decided to extract on my journey around the exhibition, so we can live a life as fabulous as David Bowie’s.

1. You can be who you want to be

When David Bowie first appeared on Top of the Pops in 1972, dressed as Ziggy Stardust, he turned the whole idea of being a pop star on its head. With his long red hair, and Stanley Kubrick inspired “ultra violence in Liberty fabric” look, and claim to spaceman-status, Ziggy was born out of whatever Bowie felt like being at the time. His purpose was to explore notions of identity outside the barriers of being simply male, or even human. Suddenly the potential was limitless.

2. Be brave and stay true to yourself

“Bowie remains a curious pioneer,” said Mojo magazine in 1995, “and pioneers as they say, get all the arrows.” In 1972, just five years after homosexuality became decriminalised, Bowie told Melody Maker magazine that he was gay. He was already a popular star by that point, and used this shocking-for-the-time fact to propel himself forward. But, he also changed society’s attitude towards sexuality and paved the way for the gay rights movement.

3. Explore your interests and keep asking questions

Bowie finds inspiration all around him, in art, books, films, theatre, music and philosophies. He is always looking for new ideas, which he explores in depth, uses in his work, and then when it’s become a hit, he quickly moves on to the next thing. His work’s been inspired by such varied sources as Stanley Kubrick, J.G Ballard, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, paranormal auras, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Hinduism, Eduardo Paolozzi, and many more. By keeping his career centred around his own beliefs, and not those of his record company he’s created a lasting legacy that is completely unique and true to himself.

4. Have fun with fashion

Again, Bowie took his inspiration from the most unlikely of places, even modelling his style on Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn in the 1971 artwork for Hunky Dory. His Ziggy Stardust hair was also inspired by a woman, and the now iconic Kansai Yamamoto striped bodysuit was first spotted in Harpers & Queen magazine. Imposing himself no barriers, he was free to explore his style in whichever way he chose.

5. Know when it’s time to change and move on

“Don’t want to be a richer man … Just gonna have to be a different man” sang Bowie in Changes. As a chameleon himself, he was saying it’s okay to change with time, and to adapt to the world around you. Aren’t we glad Bowie isn’t stuck in one of his old guises, like an Eighties hangover in a faded suit. Instead he’s chopped off the mullet and looking suave.

His Twitter profile shows a distinguished gentleman in a comfy jumper and a flat cap. Is this the new Bowie? This David Bowie exhibition is revealingly titled a ‘retrospective,’ and focuses very little on his future. David Bowie himself is said to not have participated in the curating of the exhibits, but the timing of such a high-profile show seems too much of a coincidence. Still, whatever Bowie’s involvement, the exhibition does serve as a transition stage between the old and new.

His old persona has been collected, curated and labelled (a Ziggy Stardust outfit is laid down and encased, as if in a glass coffin), and from this the new-image Bowie can emerge, like a butterfly leaving the chrysalis of his earlier career behind.

6. If it didn’t work, step back and try again

In his early years Bowie released a number of records first as Davy Jones and the King Bees, and later as David Bowie. His 1967 solo single The Laughing Gnome, a novelty record featuring squeaky voices, was a monumental flop, and still considered to be Bowie’s worst ever record.

Undeterred, Bowie took two years out to train with mime artist Lindsay Kemp. In 1969 Bowie returned with a new look, and Space Oddity, the song that would make him a star.

7. Make the most of what makes you unique

When he was 14 Bowie got punched in his left eye, leaving it permanently dilated. This unusual detail became the focus of many a promo shoot and only served to add to his image of unconventional glamour.

8. Stay involved in what you do

Throughout his career Bowie has worked closely with a number of influential people including fashion designer Alexander McQueen, artist Guy Peellaert, musician Brian Eno, designer Kansai Yamamoto and many others. His sketches and notes reveal his personal involvement with all aspects of his career, including album artwork, music videos, stage sets and lighting.

This amount of control has ensured that his vision is always fulfilled, and that he always retains responsibility for the success of his endeavours.

9. Let what you do speak for itself

Bowie did not appear at the glam V&A exhibition opening last night, and neither has he done a single interview to promote the release of his new album, The Next Day. Perhaps complete silence only works once your line of work is well established, but for the thin white duke at least it has kept the focus slam-bang where it should be – his music. And the tides of interest ebb ever higher.

One of the last rooms in the exhibition is the largest in the lot. The lights are dimmed, and on the three screens surrounding us, Bowie is performing on stage. His voice echoes round the room, the music bellows. He sings “you’re wonderful, give me your hand.” The press sit and watch, we stand in clusters. It’s like we’re at a gig, and really if you’re going to learn anything from Bowie, it’s that he’s a damn amazing performer.

See David Bowie Is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London from 23rd March to 28th July 2013.