“And now you're telling me you understand...”
We posted a cover feature from Saturday’s Libération magazine last weekend, within which there was printed a great analysis of David Bowie is at The V&A, albeit in French.
After having exhausted numerous translators, here is an approximate version of the article written by Eric Dahan in the very idiomatic French of a student of Jacques Derrida...
The Immeasurable BowieThe V&A museum in London explores the aesthetic and cultural legacy of the most influential artist of the last forty years.By Eric DahanThe announcement, a year ago, of a large exhibition dedicated to David Bowie by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London did not make me happy. Even if more than any other popular music artist, the author and the composer of Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station deserved such treatment, so much has his body of work and person influenced song and today's fashion. But the idea of an exhibition seemed morbid, reducing the artist to samples to be looked at through glass, there, when a site like YouTube offers a daily renewable inventory of never released stage and studio performances put on line by fans, to be heard or reheard, to see or re-see the artist at his best, living for eternity.I imagined already how, that which was in the very first place rock 'n roll even if deviant or sublimate, would be discussed ad nauseum by the predictable jargon of contemporary art and media, holding forth on deconstruction, as in suspending the logics of identity, authorship and signature per the model.We know that Bowie blurred in spectacular fashion the frontiers between masculine and feminine with the character of Ziggy Stardust, that he introduced Rock in the postmodern intertextuality era, to "a pretense of", a generalised fetishism, to reprise the concepts of Jean Baudrillard. But is it not more important that he wrote Panic in Detroit or TVC 15? Can an exhibition show the most modern literary writing in rock, the originality of the alloys of timbres, the genius interpreter finding for each syllable the color that suits, and who's catalogue of nuances has no need to envy a Fischer-Dieskau, when he renders justice to a lied from Schubert or Mahler?This exhibition justifies itself nonetheless entirely as without the theatricalisation of his art, without its spectacular presentation on stage and in a bundle of cultural references from Kabuki to German expressionism, by way of Hollywood film, the profound and ironic art of David Bowie would perhaps have passed unnoticed or would have touched a maximum of only a handful of aesthetes.A few days before the opening of the exhibit to which he did not participate but to which he gave free access to his personal archives, David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album in ten years, in a Duchamp like sleeve, currently number 1 on iTunes in 64 countries and number 1 in physical sales in 12 countries. Simultaneously "the greatest Art and Design museum in the world" announced a 40,000 tickets presale.Striped vinyl dressSuch a craze for the music and person of David Bowie hasn't been seen since the year he released Let’s Dance, starred in two films, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Nagisa Oshima and The Hunger by Tony Scott, made the cover of Time magazine and multiplied his audience by 10 : 100,000 people at each of his two concerts at the Hippodrome d’Auteuil, speaking only of Paris where 5 years earlier he made do with 10,000 spectators twice at the Pavillon de Paris.This context of a worldwide plebiscite, to which the New York Times has just added a final touch qualifying The Next Day as a "twilight masterpiece" naturally influences the perception that one could have of the exhibition at the V&A: purely nostalgic and destined for the fans of the artist, whether rock or fashion, "David Bowie Is" becomes the exhibition one must have seen to be current.First question that everyone is asking themselves, and most of all the disappointed of the last Bob Dylan exhibit which ran last year at the Cité de la Musique de Paris, is, is "David Bowie Is" important in size? Yes and no. The 5 rooms containing 300 objects from the 75,000 archived in the private collection of the artist, is visited in one hour. But one could spend the day if one read all the manuscripts, looked at all the video documents, closely studied all the costumes, and if one hung out in the room where the films are projected in which David Bowie has either acted or made an appearance.The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto- who does not hesitate to affirm that he was the most important designer for David Bowie and that their collaboration was as important for the singer as for himself-has for all purposes been heard since his striped vinyl dress opens the exhibition. It is nevertheless flanked by a video of Gilbert & George and works by John Cage and Carl Andre, to remind one that one is not at the Hard Rock Cafe.Above the dress, a quote by David Bowie dated 1995, the period when he released Outside and mentioned often in our presence the American philosopher and art historian Arthur C. Danto. A student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne, Danto has been teaching since 1951 at Columbia University in New York and has written many works influenced by the Philosophy of History and the Aesthetics of Hegel, concluding with "the end of Art". The Bowie quote placed as the inscription of the exhibition is the following: "All art is unstable. The significance of the work is not necessarily the one the author intended. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings".Past this preamble one enters the prehistory of the artist who left school at 15 years old to become a pop star and who, in the early sixties, could not imagine that he would speak one day the language of philosophers and that one would use the word "polysemy" a propos of rock 'n roll. On the wall, a white plaque "Stansfield Road S.W.9" reminds one that David Bowie was born and grew up at number 40 on this road in Brixton, in a suburb south of London.Photos of the pretty baby, school books, electric train, concert poster for a Jimi Hendrix gig which he attended or of the theatre piece Look Back in Anger which he would use the title for one of his songs, first TV appearance where Bowie is spokesperson for boys with long hair who are tired of being mocked in the street; nothing is left out to understand that he was not an overnight success but he knew his vocation very early on.A student of graphic art at Bromley Technical College where he had as a teacher the father of pop star Peter Frampton, Bowie draws, in 1962, costumes and theatrical attitudes for the Konrads with whom he recorded his first 45's. On the headphones given at the entry and reacting to pick ups positioned throughout the exhibition, the voice of the young Bowie explains: "I wanted to become famous, turn people on to something new", and: "I thought that I had a chance, because I was an artist, to escape insanity", an allusion to the schizophrenia that was suffered by a part of his family notably his half brother Terry, who was institutionalised at the end of the sixties, and threw himself on the tracks under a train in the mid 1980's. Bowie has alluded to him in his songs All the Madmen, The Bewlay Brothers and Jump, They Say.If he has always declined the definition of inventor, preferring the more humble observer who's songs are "polaroids" or "moments in time" Bowie is not for nothing an initiator of a generation. It is all the more tasty to hear him say in the headphones a propos of the jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy: " I understood nothing of his music but I persuaded myself that I was a fan until I ended up liking him". Or: I put books much too complicated for my age in my pocket, with the title showing, so that people would see how intelligent I was. But as I did read them, I ended up bearing their fruits".The appearance of Ziggy StardustNext to the poster for a concert shared with T. Rex and a photo of Lindsay Kemp, his mime teacher, a record company press release presents Bowie as a refined literary man citing Kafka, Pinter, Wilde but equally John Rechy, the author far more marginalised of City of Night, a book published in 1963 describing a year before Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. the world of male prostitutes from New York and Los Angeles. The musical references in the press release are not less impressive: Ragtime for Eleven Instruments by Stravinski, where many would have been satisfied to mention The Rite of Spring, Dvorak symphonies, Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams and the big bands of Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton.The second room opens on Space Oddity, in which its context is recreated: the Vasarely kinetic painting having served as the record sleeve, the poster of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey that inspired the song, a J. G. Ballard text extract from his psychotic novel the Atrocity Exhibition, prefaced by William Burroughs speaking after Alexander Trocchi (a Scottish beat writer) about "astronauts of inner space". One finds also the manuscript of the score, the photo in Time which revealed in 1969, after the return of the Apollo 8 mission, that earth was blue and not green as we had always thought ("Planet earth is blue", sings Bowie in Space Oddity), the stylophone that he played on the record, and finally the gray jumpsuit adorned by motifs inspired by Le Corbusier and worn on the 45 record sleeve, Alabama Song/Space Oddity in 1980, a short time after Bowie had recorded his classic for the Dick Clark's Salute to the Seventies TV broadcast airing on NBC in 1979.Time to remember the London opening of Warhol's Chelsea Girls in 1968, then the arrival in London of his troupe to interpret Pork in 1971, a play openly evoking sex and drugs, and Kubrick is again appealed to for introduction to the character of Ziggy Stardust from which Bowie drew inspiration for the look of A Clockwork Orange droogies. "Ultraviolence in Liberty print" he said ironically about his own version. In the place of honor in a gigantic window and surrounded by video installations, the costume worn by Bowie during the Top of the Pops broadcast during which he sang Starman, July 6 1972. an important date this first televised appearance as Ziggy Stardust, because practically all those who saw this broadcast, from Boy George to Ian McCulloch via Siouxsie Sioux, had their revelations as to their own pop destinies.All the costumes worn by Bowie are here and these alone justify the trip on Eurostar. They are by Freddi Buretti and Kansai Yamamoto (for the period Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs), Ola Hudson (mother of Slash, future Guns 'n Roses, who dressed Bowie for The Man Who Fell to Earth and the 1976 tour where he incarnated the Thin White Duke) Natasha Korniloff (Stage Tour 1978, the Pierrot costume for the cover of the album Scary Monsters and the video clip Ashes to Ashes) Peter J. Hall (the Opera costume maker who dressed the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour) and also Alexander McQueen (for the album Earthling and the 50th Birthday concert at Madison Square Garden).I bet, on this day that the exhibition opens that certain visitors will be struck by the Jerusalem syndrome and be immediately evacuated by security services, from seeing intact three feet away and without a glass case, the ice blue costume from the video clip Life on Mars or the Ziggy Stardust in a glass coffin Rudolph Valentino style. One of the most surprising costumes is the one realised from a model conceived by Sonia Delaunay for the dada piece by Tristan Tzara The Gas Heart in 1921. Bowie ordered a copy made for his televised performance in 1979 on Saturday Night Live, where he interpreted among other songs, The Man Who Sold The World with as backing vocalists the transformist Joey Arias and the pop techo counter-tenor Klaus Nomi, who then took up the Bowie costume for his own stage performances.A moonwalk that Michael Jackson will rememberFrom a saxophone used by Bowie for Pin Ups in 1973 to a telegram sent to him by Elvis Presley (‘from a King to a King’) the relics are not wanting. Metaphysical? The keys to the apartment on 155 Hauptstrasse, in the Berlin neighborhood of Schoneberg, where the writer Christopher Isherwood lived in 1925. Bowie lived here with Iggy Pop from autumn of 1976 to the end of 1978 and composed there the albums Heroes for himself and The Idiot and Lust for Life for the American rocker.But there is better: the preparatory sketches. The drawings of costumes, stage sets, album covers, story boards of videos and shows, show that Bowie conceives absolutely everything, even if he delegates to other artists the technical realisation. It is from Bowie's drawings that Guy Peellaert painted the sleeve of Diamond Dogs, that Mark Ravitz carried out the sets for the tour inspired by George Orwell's 1984 and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, that David Mallet co-directed the video clip for the song Ashes to Ashes, or that Alexander McQueen tailored the "Union Jack" costume worn by Bowie on the cover of Earthling.Among the unfinished projects, one would adore to read one day The Return of The Thin White Duke, the autobiography started during the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth, or the screenplay that Bowie wrote at the beginning of the nineties which was never made. One is not less fascinated to discover here the storyboard for a film project inspired by the Diamond Dogs project and the apocalyptic Hunger City which the exhibit shows acrylics of and that are captioned by Bowie: "The skaters are carrying torches advancing towards us. People are chasing us through alleys. The image of a skater floats between the teeth of a mouth. A close-up of the teeth show two child victims fighting to liberate themselves."Returning to the stage set of the Ziggy Show at the Rainbow Theatre, there are projections on giant scaffolding of unseen images from the Diamond Dogs tour, that is to say different to those used by Alan Yentob for his documentary Cracked Actor. This innovative show, described as ‘Broadway Rock’, influenced many artists who saw it at the Hollywood Universal Amphitheater, such as Michael Jackson who remembered 10 years later David Bowie's moonwalk for the video clip Billie Jean.With Diamond Dogs, Bowie, who's writing had already been influenced by beat poetry, used for the first time the cut up technique invented by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, which the exhibition reminds us of with a video showing the Verbasizer in action: this program conceived by a computer science friend from San Francisco upon Bowie's request allows one to divide text into pieces and then recombine them to produce new phrases; an automatic and instantaneous version of the cut-up. Right next to this is the Oblique Strategies card game invented by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, a sort of tarot for artists used by Bowie during the recording of his trilogy Low, Heroes and Lodger. One of these cards reads "Use unqualified people", which Bowie did, asking his musicians to exchange instruments to record the song Boys Keep Swinging.Those who know Bowie's body of work and ,with 140 million records sold, that’s quite a few people, will be rewarded to see the list of songs planned for Hunky Dory, We Should Be On By Now which will become Time on Aladdin Sane, or Lady Stardust, Hang On To Yourself and Moonage Daydream which will end up on Ziggy Stardust, and finally Hole In The Ground, which Bowie recorded in 2000 for his unreleased album Toy, but that the fans have pirate copies of.Ironic and Poetic MasterpiecesNo less enjoyable are the text manuscripts and tens of crossed out songs showing Bowie accumulating sentences that may appear banal before, in the excitement of the studio, transforming, compressing and reorganising them to produce ironic and poetic masterpieces. For the historians and the seekers this exhibition is a well without end. When I wrote three years ago, the history of the Station to Station album and tour, I would have liked to have had the list of songs rehearsed in Keith Richard's house in Jamaica, i.e. Young Americans, Wild is the Wind, Sorrow, Fascination and Golden Years. As for Major Tom from Space Oddity, we discover reading about a film project that should have accompanied the album Young Americans in 1975, that he should have made his return five years before the song Ashes to Ashes.Portraits of Iggy pop and Yukio Mishima painted by Bowie during his stay in Berlin are shown with comparison to one of his apparent sources of inspiration, the Dada painter George Grosz. Finally a room allows for those still in doubt, to view a video montage and fashion shows and magazine covers such as Vogue showing the Bowie looks, costumes, make-up that have been imitated, copied, pastiched, revived, hijacked by all the big names from fashion, pret-a-porter and photography."David Bowie already figured in many departments of the museum, such as the photo, art, fashion, graphic and even Asian section" explain curators Vicky Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh. "We wanted to show that his body of work surpasses by far the world of song and rock". Which the brilliant essayist Camille Paglia also proves in an article crammed with references from Shakespeare to Man Ray that she has written for the catalogue.Secluded in his penthouse overlooking Manhattan, the multimedia prophet of an already arrived apocalypse and of a mutant future, the Zarathoustra of pop, who reaffirmed a century after Nietzsche, the necessity to invent one's own values, has as paradoxical as it may seem, never been so present.