What is David Bowie

A major exhibition at the V&A examines the impact and constant evolution of the ever-influential musician, style icon and shape-shifter.

There are few musicians who can parallel the aesthetic and imaginative influence of David Bowie – master of storytelling, fantasy and re-invention – over the past five decades. Ranging from androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust to the Japanese motifs of the schizophrenic Aladdin Sane, from the monochromatic classicism of the Thin White Duke to the dystopian metropolis of the Diamond Dogs, the characters and constructions of Bowie’s imagination have transcended the traditional boundaries of rock and pop music.

The first major retrospective of Bowie’s significant impact upon the world of visual art and design, David Bowie is, studies the roles that Bowie has taken and the myriad influences that the singer has mined to become one of the dynamic personalities of the 20th century. Curated by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes of the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance, with assistance from the David Bowie archives, the show offers unprecedented access to the costumes, set designs, record covers, mood boards, sketches, lyrics and reportage photography chronicling Bowie’s illustrious career.

In performance design, says Marsh: “David Bowie has to be one of the key figures because his influence extends far beyond music and songwriting to fashion and style,” and as 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Bowie’s first foray into showbusiness, it is a timely opportunity to delve into the carefully controlled archives to discover never-before-seen pieces that highlight his creative journey. Marsh highlights that, as the UK’s national museum of art and design, “looking at the rock and pop section, we tend to be attracted to people with a very strong design aesthetic [and] we’re always looking out for interesting areas related to this.” The role of Bowie is made more pertinent because of the calculation of the artist himself over the years: “Ever since he started he has been very zealous about looking after his image; everything that Bowie has produced has been very carefully planned and designed by him so it’s very interesting to deconstruct these things and how they were created.” This calculation extends to the artist’s preservation of all of his characters and inspirations, and shows a foresight that recognised the importance of design to Bowie’s music and on-stage career. “David’s a great collector, even from childhood,” so Marsh and Broackes faced an overwhelming editing task to order the key pieces into a coherent exhibition. “The challenge is satisfying the die-hard fans, who will all have favourite things to put in, and satisfying a much broader context of the development of art and design in the 20th century. This isn’t necessarily the same story because the fans tend to focus on the music and the albums, whereas the design story is somewhat broader,” says Marsh.

Because of this broad remit, the curators also determined to “destroy chronology” for this exhibition: “We wanted to look at why David Bowie was significant in the past but also why he’s still significant today.” While still laying the foundations of Bowie’s upbringing, the thematic structure of the songwriting, design and video “curiously fell into place.” Marsh comments that the curators’ roles in tackling Bowie’s extensive archives were aided by this approach, so that “the process of shaping the exhibition edits itself.”

Although Bowie was not directly involved in the exhibition, his voracious collecting instincts and his ability to take inspiration from far and wide created a rich mine of source material while allowing the museum the freedom to explore the wider connotations and movements for visual arts and design so that “the story has essentially been made by the V&A.” Marsh and Broackes have exercised this creative freedom by pioneering a new technique of carrying the exhibition through headphones: “It’s the first time we’ve tried to do something like this, so there’s a sound story that carries through it.” It aptly marries Bowie’s music career with the evolution of his aesthetic and helps to align the curators with the musician in the creative act of making a narrative: “It’s just like working with a piece of music; you can’t have the constant pace, you have to have the highs and the lows.” The music that lies at the heart of Bowie’s career has been deftly integrated into the exhibition of his costumes and design (as the costumes and design were integrated into his music). Marsh identifies that “one of the things we found particularly interesting is that David commented in the 1990s on imagining a world where sound is all around you, with an idea that you almost swim through music and move through it as you move through air. In a weird way that vision has stayed with us.” This, in turn, highlights how Bowie’s creative evolution has been integral to that of British design, and how prescient he has been in making these predictions: “You can see over the next few years that the idea of surrounding yourself with a sound, essentially music, is going to have more impact on how we live our lives.”

The centrality of his created characters is evident from the start of Bowie’s career in the 1960s, when he spent his early years experimenting with various bands, musical and sartorial styles, illustrated by a variety of sketches of set, costume and poster designs that predate his solo career. The creation of Ziggy Stardust in 1972 was a seminal moment in pop history. Inspired by Kubrick’s droogs from the previous year’s A Clockwork Orange, Bowie’s appearance on national TV with flame orange hair, outlandish make-up and a garish outfit from Freddie Burretti highlighted the power of aesthetics to confuse and shock. Marsh attributes this focus to Bowie’s astute understanding of and interest in, the theatre: “He ‘got’ something which I don’t think a lot of musicians ‘got’ – the understanding that the stage, from a theatrical point of view, is absolutely liberating. Bowie is fascinated with the stage as a mechanism.”

Although Bowie’s live performances are now very rare, it’s pertinent that even as the artist David Bowie, he has assumed a character. Born David Robert Jones in 1947, the self-styled stage artist David Bowie was created in 1965 and has been sustained throughout Bowie’s career and various artistic guises. Marsh identifies this distance between the person and the artist as a fertile ground for creative freedom: “Although his active use of characters is limited to particular periods, the idea of David Bowie as a concept has run throughout his career and allowed him an astonishing amount of visual and conceptual space.” The idea of practising as a persona (and that persona then playing various characters at different points of his career) is the perfect postmodern form of play and almost creates a blanket from criticism. Marsh even describes Bowie’s later work, such as 1995’s Outside, in which his own theatrical characters of the 1970s and 1980s are less evident, but there are a multitude of characters in their own story, as a scenario in which “he is, in a sense, a master puppeteer manipulating these people that he’s made up.”

This sense of the theatrical and the dramatic as being integral to an understanding of the music predates the significance of the music video in the decades following the start of Bowie’s career. That many of his collaborators such as Keith MacMillan, who photographed Bowie for The Man Who Sold the World, became significant directors shows Bowie to be a pioneer in a medium that would become an essential element of pop music in the 1980s. He understood the potential of the music video from the start, making them from their very early days in the 1970s, right through to their heyday: “From day one, because of his interest in theatricality, he understood the complete importance of controlling and manipulating your image for your public.” The iconic Ashes to Ashes video (1980), co-created with David Mallet, is storyboarded in the exhibition, highlighting Bowie’s costuming and filming ideas. With its experimental use of filming techniques, subversive fairytale characters, distinctive juxtaposition of solarised colour and graphic black and white, “it had a colossal impact; even today it looks really fresh.” Marsh comments on music video in general: “He loves that art form and has done a lot to take it forward … in those years from 1980 onwards he was absolutely at the centre.”

The chaotic, hugely varied nature of Bowie’s work highlights the myriad inspirational figures, stories, motifs and ideas that he has referenced over his career: “One of the extraordinary things about Bowie is how he pillaged culture in lots of different directions from Japan to Germany.” Marsh mentions a famous quip that “he’s the only musician who comes with a reading list.” While the focus of the exhibition is on Bowie’s own work, his personal inspirations are included in interviews with collaborators such as designers Jonathan Barnbrook and Kansai Yamamoto on their time working with Bowie. Marsh highlights that Bowie is unique in his huge variety of cultural references: “There is this huge mass of objects, books, articles that he’s picked up, which you wander through … He just picks things out of them and mixes them together to create completely new things. That same thing goes for songwriting. This idea of him pulling things apart is very much the central section of the exhibition.”

The exhibition gives a pertinent insight into the open-ended nature of Bowie’s creative process and highlights his involvement in each aspect of his songwriting, set design, album artwork and costumes. The cut up, brainstormed lyrics for Blackout from Heroes illustrate his adaptation of the cut up method of William S. Burroughs, while the flamboyant Aladdin Sane Kansai Yamamoto costumes succeed Bowie’s own pastiche of Yamamoto’s work. Meanwhile, the well-documented inspiration that Bowie took from Berlin in the late 1970s (leading to the eclectic musical experiments of the Berlin Trilogy) is substantiated by an original self portrait as he appears on the Heroes cover, with an insight into the profound influences outside of music, including Dadaism, Expressionism and cabaret, which particularly affected Bowie at this time.

His pioneering spirit and ability to transcend the boundaries of music and move into other art forms means that Bowie’s work inevitably inspires numerous artists today, but Marsh is quick to warn that the most pertinent contribution that Bowie himself has made to the creative canon is the permissiveness to be yourself, and conversely, to create your own fantasy: “What Bowie is really saying to people is ‘Don’t look at me and what I’m trying to do, look at yourself, and do what you want to do, look like you want to look, be what you want to be.’ ” This individualism remains subversive in many parts of the world: “In the democratic West, we think we can get up in the morning and do what we want but it’s not necessarily a view that’s shared all around the world.” This highlights how inspiring the creative freedom of Bowie as an artist is, and the exhibition is a celebration of all artists like Bowie, who dared to challenge the status quo: “Ziggy Stardust can walk down Oxford Street and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But there are large parts of the world where, if you walked down the road as Ziggy Stardust, you’d get into a lot of trouble, and I think that is one of the reasons why David Bowie is still highly relevant … The greatest threat to people creatively is that as soon as you’re successful at one thing, people want you to keep doing the same thing and making lots of money from it, and Bowie has been single-minded enough to unfold everything himself and just drive on regardless of what fashions have been.” This creative independence is also what attracts Gucci as a sponsors; the company has an affinity with Bowie because “they’ve had an interesting history of remaking themselves, [and] Bowie is constantly reinventing himself and also staying the same at the same time. For a luxury goods brand, that is probably the most difficult thing of all.”

While David Bowie is pillages the original archives of Bowie, the V&A has also commissioned an original artwork to continue the thread of mutual inspiration. Artist Paul Robertson has created a bespoke “periodic table of David Bowie” to show “one visual total image … that shows all the influences of Bowie” while also contextualising Bowie’s artistic development in the broader realm of British art and design. “Bowie’s record covers capture what Bowie was thinking, and in turn this captures Bowie’s overall impact in society,” says Marsh. The work serves to highlight the importance of Bowie in bringing scores of disparate elements together while also inspiring further developments in the wider realm of art and design, providing inspiration for the visitor in turn.

David Bowie is opens 23 March and continues until 28 July. www.vam.ac.uk.

Ruby Beesley