When London’s V&A museum was given unfettered access to the tens of thousands of artifacts in Bowie’s eclectic archive, it was hard to imagine what they’d pick. How do you turn such a varied life’s work into an exhibition?
David Bowie Is is a colourful, all-encompassing trip, covering his development from fame-hungry teenager to weird pop’s elder statesman.
From the first room, this exhibition is an intimate, greatly detailed portrait. Post-war advertisements, record sleeves and influential paperbacks by everyone from J. G. Ballard to D. H. Lawrence sit alongside a mental map of a young Davie Jones, including notebooks, drawings and early song sheets.
Then comes a crucial letter from Davie’s then-manager:
Dear Ken, I have taken the liberty of writing to you and advising you that I have now changed Davie’s name to David Bowie.
From here, the exhibition broadens into a kaleidoscopic look at every facet of his creative process and its outcomes. Lyrics, storyboards and album cover designs share space with audacious costumes and video projections, from early appearances on Top of the Pops to his recent music videos. It’s all accompanied by a vivid sound collage on GPS-enabled headphones which sync to the visual displays as you move around.
To this end the exhibition isn’t tied to a linear history. The ’70s provocateur is a colourful blur right alongside the ’80s superstar, and ’90s Alexander McQueen costumes stand shoulder to shoulder with glam '70s Yamamoto outfits.
As assistant curator Kathryn Johnson says, “Bowie was so involved in every part of the process ... you need to see it all together to appreciate it fully.” And that’s exactly what the exhibition encourages us to do: to walk up and down Bowie’s timeline as if from another dimension, peering in at a detailed collage of his career.
What’s fascinating is that seeing behind the scenes doesn’t damage the mystique. Whatever patchwork of materials happen to inspire his work – and it’s everything from literature to architecture – the product is still more than the sum of those parts. If you’re curious to see if it’s possible to reduce the pop cultural dominance of David Bowie to something explicable, there are no answers here. Just the wild, untamed inner workings of a pop auteur.
David Bowie Is runs at ACMI until November 1.