The timing couldn’t be better for an exhibition devoted to David Bowie.
For what could have been merely a tribute to a much-loved heritage act is actually a show about the man of the moment: an album chart topper, who has just renewed himself yet again as a viral marketing genius.
Like the rest of us, the curators of ‘David Bowie Is’ would have been delighted in January when the 66-year-old quietly dropped a new single into the charts, wrong-footing a nation jaded by countless musical ‘come backs’ and their adherent marketing blitzes.
But then, as this beautifully immersive, innovative show points out, timing has always been part of Bowie’s brilliance.
It was he, after all, who landed in the public consciousness by writing ‘Space Oddity’ in the weeks after Britain first saw pictures of the earth from space. That song – written from the perspective of an isolated astronaut that is still as peculiar and powerful today - was chosen by the BBC to accompany their footage of the moon landing, just days after it was released as a single.
At the same moment the world first glimpsed outer space, they glimpsed Bowie. What a perfect entrance for the man who would go on to become our favourite extra-terrestrial for the next four decades, opening our eyes to new worlds with every artistic shape shift he performed.
Like its subject, ‘David Bowie Is’ deploys every creative technique it can to pull you into its world. Video projections dance across huge, inverted set designs. Biographical details nestle amongst rows of vinyl you can flick through like it’s a shop on Carnaby Street in the 70s. Around every corner, mannequins strike a pose in one of the famous outfits Bowie used to create a new character or announce himself on a new stage.
In the centre piece room, you find yourself surrounded by video screens that reach up to the high roof, blasting out iconic festival performances of ‘Heroes’, the soundtrack playing through your headset. But all of this merely forms the background to more than 300 items of Bowie paraphernalia, from photography to tour posters to paintings and sketches. The show manages to be both an exciting trip for people like me who love the hits and the idea of Bowie, and a rich experience for true fanatics who’ll get a thrill out seeing the handwritten lyrics to ‘Rebel Rebel’.
It’s roughly chronological, but without feeling rigid or formulaic. A dark corner pays tribute to Bowie’s black and white period – the three year comedown he spent in Berlin trading intense creative outbursts with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop – while on the other side, a screening room collects some of his more memorable moments as an actor, including a camp turn as the Goblin King in children’s film ‘Labyrinth’.
Video treasures are embedded everywhere, from his single awkward meeting with Andy Warhol in 1971 to the bonkers 1979 performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ on Saturday Night Live to a priceless BBC Nationwide report from 1969, in which a pompous Bernard Falk struggles to hide his incredulity at thousands of girls screaming for a ‘freak with make up’. Bowie’s internal creativity and external fame and influence and brought together in a whirlwind that feels at once meticulously planned and joyfully fluid.
Paying tribute to a living legend, particularly one with as many different personas and as varied an oeuvre as Bowie, was always going to be an enormous task. The show could so easily have been ingratiatingly deferential, too ‘anorak’ or too shallow, a bland biography, or worse, a eulogy.
Instead, the exhibition is more like an impression of Bowie himself: constantly surprising, fun, curious and compelling. Whatever kind of a Bowie fan you are - hell, even you're not - book a ticket now.