The queue that snaked out of the Victoria and Albert Museum, down Cromwell Road, round the corner, and all the way up Exhibition Road was reminiscent of the lines at the Met for the McQueen show. Once you’d made it through the door, you were handed a card guaranteeing you entry to the actual exhibition in two hours. And this was for the alleged “private view” of David Bowie Is. It’s not even open to the general public yet. So that’s one indication of the hysterical interest the show has already stirred up. Another? A lot of the merchandising is already sold out.
Faces in Wednesday night’s crowd included recruits from Bowie’s small army of collaborators over the years. Geoff MacCormack, Bowie’s best friend from school days and some-time co-songwriter, lined up patiently with everyone else. Steve Strange, scouted at his Blitz Club by Bowie as local color for the “Ashes to Ashes” video, did his best to recapture past glories in a spiffy suit that designer Antony Price had run up the day before (so insisted arch style commentator Peter York). Tilda Swinton, Bowie’s current video co-star, looked suitably star-kissed in a shimmering Haider Ackermann ensemble. And Celia Philo, the art director responsible for the Aladdin Sane cover—which has so far been the exhibition’s most indelible image—shared the untold story behind the image’s genesis. No grand design, no hidden occult significance, no Elvis TCB reference. Nope, that lightning bolt was lifted from the electricity symbol on the stove in photographer Brian Duffy’s studio. After makeup artist Pierre La Roche had applied it to Bowie’s naked torso, it looked so good that La Roche suggested painting his face as well. From such tiny implausible acorns of inspiration are the mighty oaks of pop immortality grown.
The show itself is so overwhelming, peaking in a final soaring space wrapped in mile-high videos like Blade Runner‘s cityscape, that the assembled throng was understandably mute before it. (Sennheiser—co-sponsor with Gucci—has also engineered a very artful headphone accompaniment, which tended to still conversation.) Still, there were some grumbles. Ackermann and Dinos Chapman agreed on an erosion of the mystique that has wrapped Bowie for four decades. (“It’s a bit like finally getting to see someone’s tits,” super-producer Stuart Price observed with typical directness.) I beg to differ. Many of the 300 artifacts that the curators have borrowed from Bowie’s own archives are quite fabulous in themselves, but you can’t string them together to explain how he got from There to Here…or Anywhere, for that matter. In fact, if the camera crew stationed outside the museum had asked me to complete the sentence “David Bowie is” one more time (on the way in, my tongue tangled in fandom and I gagged, “God”), I’d probably have said something arch like “reassuringly unknowable.” And the best thing is that the legend is still alive to see the world at his feet once more.