david bowie isThe Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington, London, 23rd March – 11th August 2013

Sound and vision collide in this multimedia retrospective on the career of a living legend.

Beyond the white marble sculptures in the main foyer of the Victoria and Albert Museum is the entrance to a very different space. Visitors to the recently opened ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition are provided with headphones which track their location and play music videos, recordings from Bowie’s live shows, and interviews with the man himself and his collaborators depending on which video screens are in the immediate vicinity, allowing for full immersion in the audio-visual experience while preventing the exhibition space itself from being overwhelmed by too many competing sounds. An added bonus is that the headsets, which were provided by Sennheiser, offer surprisingly good sound quality; the music is clearly an integral part of the way the exhibition has been designed, which is fitting given that Bowie himself, despite his outlandish costumes and love of theatrics, has always been all about the music.

The exhibition spans the entirety of Bowie’s career, throughout his many phases and stage personas, and includes some insight into his influences and inspirations as well as presenting some of the costumes that were so integral to his repeated reinvention of himself as an artist in the guise of such iconic figures as Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane and many more. A recurring theme is Bowie’s interest in staging; as he himself remarks in an interview, he has never put anything on stage that

did not owe something to the theatre, and many of the displays have titles that suggest a strong element of performativity, for example ‘David Bowie Is Wearing a Mask of His Own Face’. Of course, some space is also devoted to Bowie’s acting career, but it’s clear that even when he isn’t juggling glass spheres and pretending to be a goblin king (in the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth, which has since become a cult classic) he is usually playing a role of some kind.

One of the final displays is a set of enormous screens which are sometimes translucent, revealing yet more costumes from Bowie’s live shows (of which, to date, there have been over 1,000), and sometimes opaque, making it possible to project footage of some of these performances on to the gallery walls. Having seen a glimpse of the craft and inspiration that went into Bowie’s music, it was only right to end the experience with some classic moments from his career as one of the great performers of his time.

You can see ‘David Bowie Is’ at the V&A until 11th August, and Bowie’s new album The Next Day is available now.

★★★★

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