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David Bowie Is

Rachel Giles


V&A; Until August 11

Halfway through David Bowie Is we're treated to a full length showing of his 1973 'Life on Mars?' video. In it, Bowie wears an ice-blue suit designed by Freddie Burretti, and a silver, turquoise and red tie. His face is a mask: white, geisha-like, with cobalt blue eyeshadow, clashing with his Ziggy Stardust crimson-lake hair. He looks straight to camera. His backdrop is an empty white studio. There's no distraction from the main subject: himself. Bowie is a work of art: a musical, visual self-creation. Choreographed gestures - a nonchalant kick of his platform heel, a wave of the hand - complete the performance. It is -he is - mesmerisingly beautiful.

'David Bowie showed us we could be who we wanted to be', proclaims the introduction to the show, and this is the core message of the fastest-selling exhibition in the V&A's history. It presents Bowie as a towering figure of contemporary musical and visual culture, an influence that's still working itself out today. Bowie, the show says, is more than a pop star: he's a performer, a creator, a mystic, a director, a prophet, an icon; almost, by the time you leave, a god. A mythology is writing itself before your eyes.

This is no dull display of spangly costumes with a few songsheets thrown in. The V&A makes its case for canonisation in typical fashion: with carefully curated, eye-popping exhibits, an engaging narrative, and huge design flair (naturally).

Music is integrated into the experience with some clever Sennheiser kit, in which audio - Bowie's songs or a video soundtrack - automatically kicks in when you're near a 'hotspot'. There's no cacophony of sound interrupting your quiet contemplation of Bowie's life story, no frantic fiddling with a clunky audioguide to mess up the pilgrimage; it's totally immersive.

There's layer up on layer of context. We have every possible influence that Bowie drew on: from Dadaist theatre to Brecht; from William S Burroughs to Jack Kerouac. History is viewed through the lens of Bowie's career trajectory: the first moon landing in 1968 led to Bowie penning 'Space Oddity'.

The show also charts his childhood in Brixton and Bromley, his commercial breakthrough with 'Starman' in 1972, stardom then superstardom. It includes illuminating sections on his creative processes, Bowie's Berlin period and his forays into acting.

Early in the show there's a clip of Gilbert and George as 'living sculptures'; they still say that everything they do is art. It's an astute comparison. Bowie's personas - including Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke - are at the heart of his oeuvre. He's the living artwork; his performance became his life and his life the performance.

The exhibition is essentially a narrative on how individualism has been the driving force of our culture since the late 50s. Untrammelled self-expression, with no reference to any wider authority, wasn't Bowie's idea, but he had a global audience.

Homage occasionally lapses into fawning. Some of the text panels read like carefully worded marketing copy. 'David never puts a foot wrong,' reads one.

Really? So no 'Laughing Gnome', nor the fact that relentless touring, drugs, and Ziggy nearly sent him mad. (His coke-spoon is a tiny, striking artefact from 1974). There are no voices other than the V&A's unwavering trumpeting of his importance. They must follow their hype to its ultimate conclusion.

This is found in the section on Bowie's live performance: a staggering and awe-inspiring worship space. Video from his concerts streams from screens two or three storeys high. Beyond, periodically spotlit, are some of his most flamboyant costumes. It's breathtaking, going some way to recreate the thrill of his stage shows. But by this point, I felt just a tiny bit brainwashed.

Why this show, now? We're fascinated by the time of Bowie's flowering. In meditating on these relics in glass cases, we're reimagining the decades when he was most prominent, a time that's lost. Consumerism was there, but it hadn't trashed everything just yet; fashion was fun and not about 'global brands'. Bowie represents freedom, driving self-belief, self-expression and creativity. He's a resource we're still drawing on, perhaps ever more thirstily, in the digital age.

His first single in ten years, plugged at the end of the show, discusses the present, not the future. In 'Where Are We Now?' Bowie is reflective; he sings, in very simple terms, of 'sun', 'rain', and 'each other'. Not of imagined worlds, not about himself or a persona. His face is projected onto a puppet, and it looks frail and lined; it's light-years from 'Life on Mars?'. Bowie, who's seen and done it all, knows better than most where the cult of individualism has led us. Finally, he seems to have something to say about life on Earth.