“This bizarre man has commercialised the business of being a freak.”
Not my words, but how a sniffy and stuffy old BBC TV reporter described David Bowie in a Nationwide report on his Aladdin Sane tour broadcast on 25th May 1973. Now, 40 years on, he’s commercialised the business of being an icon, and the esteemed establishment that is the Victoria & Albert Museum in London have devoted an entire exhibition – their biggest ever – to the man, the legend, and the first pop star to declare himself gay, even if the truth – never something he’s ever let get in the way of a good quote – was ever so slightly different.
What Bowie really was was the world’s first metrosexual, says the man who invented the term, Mark Simpson. From couture to culture, the indelible imprint of this ruthless recycler of ideas is everywhere. Often copied, never quite equalled, in terms of presentation you can draw a bold bright line from Ziggy Stardust to Madonna and Lady whatsername; they just took less risks by shoring his influence of the avant garde and impressionistic leanings – in other words, more Dada than Gaga. Mind you, Madge rejected the V&A’s overtures to stage a visual examination of her career. Bowie, on the other hand, had no such qualms about becoming a living museum piece and was “extremely flattered” at the proposal, despite the museum’s insistence they’re not paying him a penny for the privilege.
There’s costumes aplenty, with particular emphasis on the flamboyant 1970s creations by the likes of Kansai Yamamoto and Freddie Burretti. Most confounding of all is Bowie’s original coke spoon, a pertinent reminder of why he was pseudonymously known as the Thin White Duke, though one suspects it was nothing more than a toot tool for top-ups, and he’s leaving the ladle in the closet for now. The attention to detail is fascinating, if flawed, though. The museum even pipes out his signature scent – Paloma Picasso’s Minotaure.
Wary that the exhibition could be seen as a vanity project, the subject opened his vaults and pretty much let them get on with it. Well, that’s the official line, anyhow. The expert marketeer’s only public comment a brief but cleverly worded distancing statement which the V&A confessed to me ”worked wonders” for their publicity machine. The curators have been notified of many of the offending articles by more than one Bowie author, but their attitude seems to be that they would see what they could do but that it is “very expensive” to change captions! The age of grand illusion is alive and well and running the show from a New York condo.
The other bugbear is that some important costumes, specifically a pair of tour suits from 1974, as well as iconic Aladdin Sane costumes are displayed so high and behind fuzzy gauze projection screens as to be almost unviewable. Quibbles aside, “David Bowie Is” proves that one man (and his considerable roll call of helpers) can affect art, fashion and film. The music? The music is outside.Steve Pafford
David Bowie Is is on until Aug 11 at the V&A, London and then Sept 25 – Nov 27 at the AGO, Toronto, Canada.
A detailed list of the errors found in the exhibition can be found here: