Monday, 11 November 2013

David Bowie is... V&A Museum Exhibition

You know those posts you find at the bottom of your drafts pile that you meant to publish months ago but never got around to it? Well this is one of mine. I visited the David Bowie is... exhibition at the V&A back in June when it was still open, so while it's pretty pointless giving you a review of something that no longer exists, perhaps you can take some information on how the V&A runs music-based exhibitions from this.

Before I start, allow me to apologise for the lack of photographic evidence to support my claims on this exhibition, any photos were found on a Google Images search. A strict no photography ban was enforced at the exhibition, so much that a security guard lunged at me as I got my phone out to check the time. It seems the entirety of London is under a no photography ban nowadays.

Ever since the David Bowie is... exhibition was launched at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I knew I had to go. I grew up with Bowie and I wear his shirts religiously as a symbol that he's helped me become who I am - unusual and unashamed of it.
I wasn't sure what to expect from an exhibition on Bowie - a few costumes, a few sheets of music, his erratic lyric notes? I got a lot more than I bargained for.

Before you're allowed past the threshold of the exhibition, you have to queue up for your allotted entry timeslot, and even then you're taken in groups of 10, so if your ticket says you're going in at half past, expect to go in at quarter to. If you're in a rush, this exhibition is not for you.

As soon as you enter, you're given the general gist of the entire collection - The David Bowie is... exhibition was one of those that put anything on display that the central person has touched. I imagine the curators had a conversation that went very much like this:
'So you know that tissue Bowie wiped his lipstick on once?'
'Let's put it in the exhibition...'
'Good idea! Oh and while we're at it, can we put in a MASSIVE canvas of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe prints, y'know, because Bowie liked them?'
'Yeah, because that'll keep the visitors happy!'
I found myself wading through photos of Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger rather than Bowie, purely because Bowie liked them. Fair enough to make a display or two about his influences, but that shouldn't consume an exhibition by any means.

The exhibition wasn't short of costumes though. From the iconic Ashes To Ashes pierrot costume to a gorgeous union flag coat, you're met with a new outfit at every turn. Even a completely generic tux he wore to the BRIT awards in the 1980s made for a feature - if you're a die-hard fan, you'll love the exhibition, as it displays so many things only dedicated followers would recognise.

The exhibition is littered with statements to finish the sentence 'David Bowie is...'. The collection focuses on Bowie breaking the boundaries of genre, image, sexuality and icon, as we all know, dedicating a few displays to his interest in Japanese fashion design and kimonos he would wear on stage in the 1970s, breaking every preconception of musicians up until then.

The audio experience, provided by Sennheiser, played soundbites as you approached every key display, and I found myself lingering at the Starman display just to listen to the chorus over and over, as if I hadn't heard it a thousand times before. It's so easy to find yourself captivated in Bowie's music, even if it's on a loop. There was one fundamental problem with the audio guides - they didn't guide you whatsoever. While for some visitors it's great to have the freedom of taking your time around the displays, it makes for serious traffic when the museum allows some 50 people into the exhibition at one time and it just happens that 20 of them would rather listen to one soundbite for half an hour than move along and allow other people to listen. I can understand people wanting to take their time in an exhibition, but I had a limited amount of time as I had an evening event to go to, and I certainly didn't have five hours spare to peruse.
The most baffling section for me was a small recording studio replica, where the audio guides would pierce your ears with sharp microphone feedback to recreate the recording experience. While the studio is such a fundamental piece of the Bowie jigsaw, it would have been much better to hear a sample of Bowie's rehearsal recordings rather than grating buzzing.

Despite its downfalls, I left feeling a lot more informed about Bowie, the man and the idol. In a way I'm glad I didn't dedicate an entire trip to this exhibition, as it costs enough for me to get to London and I would have been very disappointed by the unrelated displays. While it didn't feel as if you were amongst him, surrounded by his weird and wonderful costumes, you're certainly given an insight into his unconventional trains of thought, and that's all you can ask for from an exhibition based on the iconic man of mystery.

Did you go to see David Bowie is...?

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