David Bowie is…. exhibit at the V&A in London


We arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum at 9:45am, thinking we were late and had just missed our 10am ticket entry time–only for the guard to tell us the museum wasn’t opened yet, but that when it did open, we just had to walk straight ahead to the entry for the exhibit. And we stood there as the crowd grew and grew, and people walked up and said that they were there for the Special Exhibit but didn’t have tickets, and the guard told them that there were already 400 people waiting upstairs (we took the subway route from the South Kensington tube station, so were underground) and that they had to go up there. I clutched my tickets tighter.

And then, 10 am, we walk up the stairs and straight through several galleries and I keep waiting to hit some kind of queue, but then there are the signs and someone checks my ticket and hands me an audio guide, telling me to hit play when I walk in the gallery. One more ticket check and I am in. There is, quite honestly, one person ahead of us and we had about 15 blessed minutes with no one else in the gallery because we went in the alternate entrance.

I am not much of an audio guide person but I went in and clicked play and it took me 5-7 minutes to realize that this is not your mother’s audio guide as it plays based on where you are standing in the gallery, not based on some rigid recitation of a path it requires you to take. Once I realized that I could walk where I wanted to walk and skip what I wanted to skip and the guide would go with me – or that I could go back to something and hear it again (or not) – I was a big, big fan. This is genius. It was a little buggy – there was a lot of waving of receiver boxes at antennas in some spots – but the ability to proceed at my own pace, in my own order, was vital to my enjoyment of this exhibit. It also meant that I wasn’t stuck behind people from Iowa who had no clue as to who David Bowie was but could spend extra time reading handwritten lyrics (and there are quite a lot of those).

I had been warned about the introductory plaques at the start of each exhibit section and how I could skip them, and you might be able to do that too. There was a lot of standing and staring at items of clothing that I had seen him wear over the years, and being a few feet or inches from this stage costume or that one – that one I had in a life-size poster on my wall for so many years, seeing it in person was kind of odd and jarring and yet – hello, old friend. The Scary Monsters album artwork was actually produced in a format about sixteen times an album cover, and then reduced to size. There is a computer program called the “Verbasizer” and Bowie talked about how it helped him access a subconscious part of his brain with his conscious self. I think I watched that about five times.

The amount of planning and work and visualization is not astonishing because it is Bowie but to see the work on paper, the makeup charts and the lighting cues and the stage sketches and models and the fabric swatches. None of this could have possibly been accidental or thrown together and I am glad that I can appreciate it now and not be chided that this kind of work was not very rock and roll. It made me feel lazy and self-indulgent.

You walk into a room and it’s, “Oh, it’s the Berlin room,” and I think that one got me the most, the handwritten thank you note from Christopher Isherwood and the koto he used on “Moss Garden” and a painting of one James Osterberg and it is a tiny room, really, but yet they managed to somehow pick the pieces that would put together the entirety of his Berlin phase into this room. And it is sparse yet overwhelming. It was put together the same way the rest of the exhibit was, with a fan’s eye and a curator’s eye and a historian’s eye, all at the same time, working together. That is really the genius working here.

And then the final room, floor to expanded ceiling of more stage outfits and video screens and PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD with live footage, you move from side to side or stand in the middle and your view is different, what you hear is different, and other times you take off the headphones because it is ear-splittingly, concert-volume loud. That was where I felt kinship with some of the other people there, the ones moving their lips probably without realizing they were doing it, the ones whose faces filled with recognition or remembrance when a different clip hit the screen: We know. We remember. We were there. We watched this a million times. At first I wished it had been in the middle of the exhibit, because I was worried I didn’t have enough time (I had a budget of 2 hours for the exhibit and then half an hour for the gift shop before I had to get on a train back to Paris) and then I realized it was the second-to-last room and that I had plenty of time. And of course it would be the second-to-last room because it was the room that synthesized everything you had just seen, if you didn’t know anything about him or didn’t know anything beyond the fact that he was David Bowie, here is the summation of everything you just saw. This is what it produced. I was just glad I had all those memories and I could attach them like velcro to items that I watched or saw or listened to as I passed through the rooms.

The gift shop will only take you about 15 minutes if you look at the website ahead of time and know what you are going to buy. The catalog is a must and I am just glad that I had a friend get one for me well before I knew I was going to be able to visit.

There are no more advance tickets so you have to show up and wait, but if you are reading this web site you know how to do that. (I ended up with tickets simply because a Twitter-friend was at the museum with her dad one morning and I said, “I wish I knew you were going, you could have gotten me tickets” and she said, “I’m still here, what do you need?” Because advance tickets sold out not long after that.) The exhibit is also coming to Toronto later, and you should go.