Hubert Burda Media


The first international retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie opens in London this month. ALISON CATCHPOLE discovers how the cultural icon and his work are portrayed in an exhibition at South Kensington's august Victoria and Albert Museum.


IF YOU WERE in any doubt about the link between Italian fashion house Gucci and a major new exhibition in London, let Creative Director Frida Giannini clarify for you: “I am not one to play favourites – the proof is my vinyl collection of more than 8,000 records. Rather than one album, I'll give you five. Bowie's vast body of work, like his wardrobe, never ceases to inspire. Space Oddity (1969); The Man Who Sold the World (1970); Aladdin Sane (1973); Diamond Dogs (1974); Heroes (1977). For me, it was important to show our support for this artist whose creativity and idiosyncratic authenticity have helped shape everything from contemporary art, music and fashion to popular culture and even social conventions.”

When David Bowie first caught public attention with his single “Space Oddity” in July 1969, few could have predicted his widereaching influence and versatility. From idiosyncratic roots – his 1967 “The Laughing Gnome” and the glam-rock Ziggy Stardust of the early '70s – via American success with “Fame” and “Young Americans”, through collaborations with artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Bing Crosby, and a film career that has to date included roles in The Man who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Prestige, Bowie is the ultimate chameleon. A major exhibition at the V&A explores Bowie the musical innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting styles and sustained reinventions across five decades.

The show is co-curated by Victoria Broackes, whose previous exhibitions have featured pop princess Kylie Minogue, Motown band The Supremes and Eurythmics singer-songwriter Annie Lennox. “The title of the exhibition, David Bowie Is, reflects our desire to place it in the present tense,” Broackes explains at her office in the museum. “It's not a chronological exhibition, it's thematic, but the starting point is that David Bowie is all around you. Then the fascinating question that has to be answered is, ‘Why?' ”

It is little over two years since the exhibition began to look like a real possibility, when Bowie agreed to give open access to around 60,000 objects in the New York-based David Bowie Archive. The curators whittled it down to around 300. “It's a properly archived collection,” observes Broackes. “You jump for joy when you hear that not only is one of the most interesting pop artists of all time open to the idea of an exhibition, but has actually got the stuff. It's absolutely thrilling.”

Last autumn, rumours that Bowie was himself co-curating the exhibition were quickly denied in an unprecedented intervention by the singer on Facebook. Bowie, it seems, is happy for the venture to go ahead but does not want to be directly involved.

It's not the first time that the V&A, renowned for its collections of furniture, art and fashion, has focused on music. Its rock and pop archive now has a significant collection, but, as Broackes concedes, “The great thing for us about Bowie is that he kept not only the costumes but also the design on the back of a fag packet for the costumes, possibly with a note to the designer, so we're able to actually look at the entire process”.

With input from Gucci and a special location-triggered sound experience provided by high-end audio firm Sennheiser, the Bowie retrospective – which will tour Europe, and possibly Australia and Asia – seems likely to be innovative both in its content and presentation. “The storyline for Bowie is that he's a pioneer not just in music, but also in rock, theatre, video, digital downloads. And he's often cited as an influence on artists. So the exhibition is exploring the full impact of his cultural significance.”

Highlights include more than 60 costumes such as Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto's flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973) and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997).

There's also the original model for the stage set of the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, heavily influenced by Bowie's reading of the dystopian George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and many unseen pieces. “Bowie was in a frenetically creative period at that time. He wanted to do a film, and he storyboarded it. We have a little bit of footage that he took when he was showing John Lennon ideas for how the film would work. It's a very nice complete little grouping of objects, none of which have been seen before.”

In answering the “why?” question, the exhibition illustrates context at different periods of Bowie's life with relevant art and sound experiences. “One of the things that makes Bowie truly fascinating is his breadth of influences…a sort of conduit to a history of 20th-century culture,” Broackes says. “He takes influences spanning German expressionism, surrealism, Theatre of Cruelty, film, literature and so on. His impact on fashion and style is huge but it doesn't stop there. I meet fans who say, ‘Oh yes, I heard that was a reference to Nietzsche so I went out and bought the book'. I think Bowie is pretty unique in that respect.”

The intended finale of the exhibition is a search engine bringing up images of what Broackes calls “Bowieness” in the wider world and then encouraging visitors to contribute. “We really want the audience to be as much a part of the story as everything else we're showing in the exhibition. At the V&A we're usually dealing with things where people come to be told. The Bowie exhibition will be different.”

“We hope people will leave with the idea that there's an aspect of recent history that they can see being lived out daily. You look at how Bowie was working – he was actually going to all those films, going to the theatre, reading all those books. You know, he didn't have Google, he wasn't sitting there making those connections like we can now and I think there are some interesting things to be said about that for people to understand. I'm not saying people are lazy or anything so simplistic but it's just so interesting how communication affects culture generally.”

Gucci's Frida Giannini is just as hopeful that the exhibition's influence will be widely felt in numerous ways. “David Bowie is already an inspiration for his aspirational and unique style. He encouraged both sexes to play with their image and personality in surprising and unconventional ways, helping women to express their masculine strength and men to show their vain and feminine side. I think of him doing his make-up by himself in the mirror or cutting his own clothes and dressing himself. Each and every one of his appearances was a performance – in and of itself. I think his contribution to the modern world will be felt for decades to come. And it's my hope that this exhibition will inspire future generations to be just as fearlessly inventive.”