Bowie Mania Again

A guest review by Oliver Bradbury

1987 was undoubtedly Bowie’s all-time nadir; bequeathing us a hideously overproduced album that the singer himself would later disown; appalling ‘80s big hair; and a painfully naff appearance on the debut of American Top of the Pops. A decade is a long time in planet pop and all the Teutonic grace of 1977’s “Heroes” had vanished into 1980s conformism. Things couldn’t get much worse, but perhaps they did just so with 1989’s much-maligned Tin Machine ‘project’. By comparison, 2013, like 1993, seems to be Bowie’s year again, with a major retrospective at the V&A and his first album in ten years, The Next Day; the latter catching everybody off guard, many believing Ziggy really had retired for good. For what happened back in 1993 we will return to shortly.

From 1984 until 1992 Bowie ploughed through a long artistic wilderness, 1983’s Let’s Dance taking a blow torch to the enigma that he had so carefully nurtured throughout the 1970s. Although there were still occasional flashes of former brilliance – Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s suave and proto-‘90s black and white video for the Never Let Me Down single (1987) is actually a bit of alright – it took until 1993 for Bowie to rediscover his creative mojo, not so much with Black Tie White Noise, but instead and more obscurely or esoterically with The Buddha of Suburbia. Based on Hanif Kureishi’s excellent semi-autobiographical novel, Bowie composed an intelligent soundtrack for a BBC four-part miniseries in mid-1993, drawing on his 1970s past for inspiration, as well as giving his best interview in years, Tony Parsons’ ‘Bowie by bowie’, in Arena, May-June 1993, illustrated with a treasure trove of archival illustrations. Tin Machine derision behind him, Bowie was now at the beginning of a return to relevancy and his first really good album in years, Outside, followed in 1995.

Now fast forward eighteen years: the fact that there had been no new Bowie ‘product’ for a decade made headline entertainment news on 8 January 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday, and London’s Evening Standard getting in there first with a whole page story on page three, triumphantly titled ‘Let’s dance… Bowie’s singing again’. The serious broadsheets followed suit on the 9th, running front page and major stories – The Times with five pages – as if this was an event of global importance… This level of interest doesn’t happen when you bang out an album every two years or so. And then the story disappeared as quickly as it had materialised.

Not long before opening the show was extended from closing on 28 July until 11 August and therefore the V&A was clearly anticipating bumper interest. Would there have been such interest and a staggering 50,000 advance tickets sold (meaning that press were not given free catalogues – as is the convention elsewhere – at the media preview) – the most in the V&A’s history – if Bowie had not chosen to release an album to coincide with the exhibition? And is Bowie’s silence for so long really driving the current level of media interest-hype in him or, so my suspicions niggle at me, is he babysitting for some kind of wider cultural vacuum that now makes even the 1990s look almost interesting? In 2013 it is totally forgotten just how unfashionable Bowie had become a little over twenty years ago; his second half of the 1980s abyss virtually edited out of the raft of current non-critical revisionist journalism, this unwillingness to face Bowie’s mistakes during the 1980s also applying to the V&A’s survey.

Whereas eleven years in Bowie’s prime would have meant multiple reincarnations, ranging from 1969’s Space Oddity to 1980’s Scary Monsters, to be frank there seems little difference between 2013’s Where Are We Now? single and the sound of Heathen (2002). Although not a bad song, is this similarity answered by a kind of late middle-aged stasis, no longer able to innovate, and why for that matter should Dame David when now a 66-year-old pensioner? Or that the insipid second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), does not bode especially well for the perennial return to form promised with each album for the last 25 years. In his prime, however, Bowie was a musical and stylistic reformer and no less innovative than his leading contemporaries in the worlds of pop music, fashion, dance and self-expressionistic arts.

But all this is just a slightly withering preamble to a show about why Bowie had been able to become relevant again back in 1993; for once upon a time he had been one of the key 1970s protagonists, having defined the decade musically and stylistically in reaction to a scene that had run out of new ideas by 1970, post-Beatles. Having tasted fame fleetingly in 1969, consolidated success came with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) and by then early seventies Glam rock could really differentiate itself from late 1960s hippydom or psychedelia.

Whereas the wardrobe for Ziggy Stardust was a bit on the homespun side, the styling for Aladdin Sane was a slicker incarnation of Ziggy. Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane (1973); design by Brian Duffy and Celia Philo, make up by Pierre La Roche. © Duffy Archive

The V&A was granted access to David Bowie’s now New York-based archive to curate the first international retrospective of a truly singular career, as one of the most pioneering, hugely influential and fascinating cultural protagonists merging from this country since 1969. David Bowie is explores the creative processes of Bowie as a musical innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting style and sustained reinvention across five decades. However, ‘The V&A has been given unprecedented access to The David Bowie Archive’ claim is not quite true as the instructive ‘Bowie by bowie’ article of 1993 states that Arena had also been ‘Given unprecedented access to his personal archive of photographs, his legendary wardrobe’ and this was when the secretive Archive was in upper Lausanne, Switzerland, his then home, a time when Bowie was happy playing curator: ‘All costumes were selected by Bowie exclusively for ARENA’.

In some ways this article of twenty years ago can be read as the germ of the current exhibition, but Bowie not playing curator nearly twenty years later got the V&A show off to a wobbly start on 28 August 2012 when the by now reclusive star tetchily informed his minions on Facebook: ‘Contrary to recently published reports relating to the announcement by the V&A of an upcoming David Bowie Exhibition, I am not a co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition.’ But Bowie acting as collector or curator of what is tantamount to a private museum of himself is something new that we did not know already. The curators of the exhibition – Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh – sifting through 7,000 of Bowie’s own artifacts in order to select over 300 and here brought together for the very first time, including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, fashion, photography, film, music videos, set designs, his own instruments and album artwork. And he has been fastidious in retention, down to sketches on Gitanes packets and menus from Bowie and Iggy Pop’s favourite Berlin café.

As opposed to the already well-known musical collaborations, the exhibition puts an instructive and much needed fresh emphasis on the broad range of Bowie’s collaborations with artists and designers in the fields of fashion, graphics, theatre, art and film. Here displayed are Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, photography by Brian Duffy; maverick album sleeve artwork by Guy Peellaert and Edward Bell (the latter’s huge 1980 album artwork mock-up is intriguing), visual excerpts from films and live performances including The Man Who Fell to Earth, music videos such as Boys Keep Swinging and a set model created for the Diamond Dogs tour (1974) – a maquette so small for so giant a rock opera. Alongside these there are more personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores and diary entries, revealing the evolution of his creative ideas. The issue though with Bowie is of course that of worrying dilettantism; on the one hand we admire the rapid turnover of new ideas, on the other contend with the postmodern plundering of so much on offer, but fleetingly so.

Having previously seen so much of this material in only two dimensional media, it is a revelation and genuine joy to see it all for real: the exquisite crocheted Elizabethan courtier pomp of the Pierrot costume for the 1980 Ashes to Ashes video by the late and undervalued Natasha Kornilof (1936-2008); the equally exquisite craftsmanship of the late Alexander McQueen in all his battle-scarred retro-Georgian frock coats; and another underrated master, the sheer finesse of Kansai Yamamoto’s (1944-) silky Glam rock era work for a by then increasingly confident Bowie. Other multiple highlights include the surreal outfit Bowie wore for singing The man who sold the world on Saturday Night Live, New York, aired 15 December 1979, and gripping footage of this, and an unexpected detail… Brian Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer – the modest suitcase-scale of a 1974 model synthesizer used for recording the mighty “Heroes” is surprising.

Throughout the exhibition the mannequins are completely alluring to look at, with all Bowie’s funny suits and other more sinewy spidery outfits, though I was hoping to see the fitted dark leather bomber jacket that he wore on the cover of “Heroes” and during the rest of 1977, but, alas, this is one of the few items that Bowie has lost, quite out of character. That Bowie was song-writing to a very high standard, acting as his own stylist, directing himself, even designing his own clothes and for others too, drawing story boards, acting, bringing all this together in one engaging package comes across very well, though occasional temptations to over-intellectualise his enormous talent must always be resisted for this is planet pop and was always aimed at a mainstream audience, not a quorum of self-congratulatory academics. Above all, David Bowie is shows, perhaps for the first time, that Bowie is a kind of sound and vision hub or coordinator, bringing out the best work of others equally talented.

My only criticism would be that I think some of the display is a mess – particularly the chronologically mashed-up zone within the first section of the exhibition where one can fully circumnavigate the display (in the arm that leads to the North Court) and this reads as an over-stacked, tottering wedding cake comprising too much material. Still, the V&A is having to work with a now tired and irritatingly split-in-two, by a cross-corridor, space for the internationally renowned programme of temporary exhibitions, which will close in 2014 and building work for Amanda Levete Architects’ Exhibition Road Building Project starting thereafter. The display throughout is a bit of a jumble with a lot crammed in; however, the sheer fecundity of Bowie’s ceaseless stream of often excellent ideas does comes across this way though with less emphasis on the less stylish and influential phases, such as years 1984 to 1992. For some reason the ungainly space worked better for 2011’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, which had a much more lucid sequential display of material. But my criticism of the current show is trifling in that the visual extravaganza cannot really fail because of the intrinsic quality of the material itself, beautifully maintained, sourced from Bowie’s comprehensive archive.

2013 retrospective: floor-to-ceiling screens showing live footage. Photograph: V&A

But can any of this be pitched at the level of Fine or decorative art, worthy of a world class museum and is the V&A pandering to revenue-generating popularism, as could be argued of its 2007 Kylie Minogue: The Exhibition? I would argue yes in that Bowie is a crucial figure in terms of gauging what the 1970s stood for culturally, musically, stylistically and sartorially. Possibly the show’s most illuminating element is Bowie’s patronage of first-rate and extremely inventive couturiers and therefore a visit is a must for all fashion students and those interested in the history of fashion. This being perhaps the least expected aspect of the show, and one that reassuringly negates any possible suggestion of superficiality in terms of overall subject matter. Nevertheless, since the second half of the 1960s Pop has appropriated from Fine Art but to what extent has Pop influenced Fine Art, beyond Sixth Form art projects, I mean?

Graphically strong, the accompanying publication has been produced to the standard that we have come to expect of major V&A exhibitions, such as the excellent and very instructive one for Postmodernism Style and Subversion. There is no room here to critique essays in the David Bowie Is publication though I think an opportunity was possibly passed over for even more obscure material that only the Archive can provide, too much precious space wasted instead with clever strap-line text pages. Essays are generally informative though occasionally prone to grand claims for Bowie, as in being, for example, Warhol’s direct successor, and minor mistakes – a repeated one being that 1980’s Ashes to ashes song and video spawned New Romanticism. To their (N.R.) credit, Bowie was in fact responding to them for they had been new kids on the block since 1978, though of course they were Bowie’s direct progeny, his derivatives. Also, there is an overall deferential tone to the V&A survey, a reluctance to face Bowie’s musical and stylistic mistakes.

Where Bowie has genuinely crossed the threshold into the world of Fine Art is in his work as a painter – a relatively low key aspect of the show. I recall his first one-man show at The Gallery, Cork Street, in April 1995 being a very mixed affair in terms of his ability as a painter-draughtsman, but amongst the stodgy Sixth Form dross he has done some good stuff such as his neo-Expressionist Self-portrait from 1980. And the V&A publication certainly reveals Bowie’s skill as an ideas draughtsman in his storyboard sketches. Moreover, one cannot doubt his commitment in this field of activity over many years, an article by Cynthia Rose in Harpers & Queen from 1979 noting: ‘Bowie’s interest in fine art has persisted: he hopes to study painting again formally some day, “when I have the time” and while filming Just a Gigolo in Berlin, he channeled his passion for the sad city and its history into a series of woodcuts made in his moments off the set. A brown leather album containing Polaroids of his paintings travels with him wherever he goes.’ As we get ever further away from the 1970s, interest in Bowie and the decade will continue to grow, in counterpoint to a now blander, ever-homogenised world, informed by conformity and only distant memories of a wilder, artistically richer 1960s and 1970s.

David Bowie is, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 March–11 August 2013. Oliver Bradbury is the author of ‘A chance encounter with Brian Eno’ in things 19-20.

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