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David Bowie, the V&A and Medieval Pilgrimage

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Earlier this week, I saw the brilliant David Bowie exhibition at the V&A. The show is quite fantastic and has had critics not just swooning, but bursting into rhapsodies and, in at least one case,, tears.

It is in many ways the perfect exhibition. Simply called David Bowie Is..., it showcases the glittering career of one of the most versatile and thoughtful artists of the last century. The range of collaborations with artists and designers 'in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theater, art and film' is astonishing. And the music ain't bad either.

I'll be packing off my students to see it (if they can get tickets, that is), as it is the perfect example for anyone wanting to understand medieval religion. The record-breaking crowds that will flock to see the show will be like pilgrims visiting a shrine of an important saint: here is the outfit Bowie wore when he sang Starman on Top of the Pops; there are the lyrics, written in his own hand, for Rebel Rebel. There is the printed itinerary of the train journey across the eastern US, with stop-offs to the end of the line before the rest of the trip was by car and van. They are like relics belonging to a holy man, objects to be admired. In the middle ages, perhaps it would have been part of a finger bone; or look - part of a cloak that a saint wore on his way to Jerusalem. But in both cases, the message is: come, see and - well, please don't touch.

Contrary to popular belief, being alive and venerated was both regular and very common in early Christianity - something that will be a further relief to Bowie fans already delighted by a five-star new album. In the middle ages (and before), people traveled to see their icons, living saints, to see them in the flesh. Crowds would flock to venerate their heroes, especially those whose 'career choices' signaled an unusual ability to understand the world around them. Men who stood on the top of columns, or buried themselves in holes in the ground for years on end became celebrities, greatly admired for their asceticism and what we might call today the commitment to their art. Then too, much was ideas and about performance.

So my favorite early saint from the 5th Century was Simeon, a holy man who lived on top of a tall column whose speciallity was touching his head repeatedly with his toes - presumably a yogic type move. He once did so 1,244 times in succession - in front of adoring fans and sour faced authorities, who one suspects would have called Simon and his followers 'freaks' as the BBC did of Bowie in the early 70s (the report is shown at the V&A; it made me burst out laughing).

St Simeon may not have had a blue and red flash on his face, but like Bowie, he felt that there were other ways to find enlightenment than following the herd. And that appealed to many who felt that the bishops, churches and that sort of thing were, well, just uncool. Hey dudes, we can be heroes, he might have sung down from his column 1500 years ago, if just for one day.

But what I like about the Bowie show most is how it reads like a hagiographical account. I mean that from a lofty academic view of what hagiography is, rather than how the word is usually used by the way, to mean over-flattering and uncritical. In fact, true hagiography, or writing about saints, holy men and women and iconic figures, had an instructive and educative purpose. Its aim was to teach, to inform and to inspire; and what makes the exhibition exhilarating is the fact it does just that.

We learn, for example, how Bowie works: in a small mock up studio, we see notes listing how many string musicians he brought in to record particular tracks and how much they were paid; we see how he uses loops, how he sets up jamming sessions to tease out little pearls which are then fashioned into something more substantial; we learn how he works with lyrics, and how he has played with chopping up sentences randomly to create new meanings; he talks on camera about how and where ideas come from and how he gives them oxygen to breathe. It is a tool kit that explains how to innovate, how to create and how to think. Here is what you need, it says, for revelation to occur.

And as with good saints' lives from late antiquity, it all seems blindingly obvious when it is set out in front of you: how is it even possible no one else twigged the links between music and fashion? Or that the process of re-invention was itself part of the process - that personae could, and had to be, killed off? Or that the artist as subject in their own right was important? Or about how mime, dance, performance, music, film and design and image are one and the same thing?

The show is one of those rare events where you leave with many more questions than you went in with - not necessarily about Bowie himself, although you cannot fail to be anything other than deeply deeply impressed. But you are also prompted to be highly introspective: which are the obvious dots in and around our own lives that we are too rushed, too blinkered or too dim, to see and to join up? Looking at how someone else cracked the code is therefore not just an inspiration but a blueprint.

Plus, once you've seen one holy man touch their head with their toes, that's enough for me. Can't wait, on the other hand to head back to the fabulous V&A, which yet again, is bang on trend....