The Victoria & Albert Museum, until 11 August 2013
Attended 10 June 2013
Coming late to a pop culture idol can give you a warped impression of the idol’s career and influence. As a child of the 80s, my earliest memory of David Bowie was his performance as the Goblin King in the film Labyrinth. I am still haunted by those tights. I bopped along to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” blissfully unaware that it sampled Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and only years later heard the full original. Likewise, I thought Mum’s flame orange pixie mullet of early 80s photos was her own unique invention, and not a reference to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane persona. The brilliant Flight of the Conchords parody, “Bowie in Space”, will always play for me in any Major Tom playlist.
Appropriately, the format of the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum allows visitors to experience one of the UK’s most influential chameleons in a novel way. Armed with a set of Sennheiser headphones, you wander through rooms of costumes, handwritten lyrics, albums, photos and videoclips, as audio accompaniment plays through your headphones automatically. Each of rooms is fitted with sensors, and the appropriate soundtrack to match whatever you are looking at is selected and plays for you. This sounds like it could feel constricting, but it’s not, you can wander here and there and the soundtrack will adjust. It’s far less effort than a standard audioguide.
While the set-up is vaguely chronological, there are bits and pieces of Bowie all over the place, linking through from one album or concert series to the next. This immersive experience for the Bowie exhibition makes a great deal of sense. A performer as dynamic and passionate as Bowie would never want to be reduced to a timeline.
We can’t re-live Bowie from the beginning (although many Baby Boomer punters were trying to, all misty-eyed and motionless in the final multi-screen room which showed clips and concerts on loop). The newness which came with the sound of “Heroes” or “Life on Mars” is gone forever, diluted by incessant use in sports montages and TV themes: music has vampirically moved on. But what the curators at the V&A have done is creatively showcase Bowie’s varied and impressive career, reminding visitors of his extensive influence and helping people like me to fill in several gaps in appreciation.
For better or worse, the closest Mum gets to Aladdin Sane hair these days.
*Get there early in the day to pick up one of the 450 or so timed day tickets available – advance tickets have been sold out for weeks.