The Age JULY 4, 2015 - by Stephanie Bunbury


"There's a starman waiting in the sky / he'd like to come and meet us/but he thinks he'd blow our minds." Anyone seeing David Bowie sing this in the video clip included in the compendious exhibition David Bowie Is could be left in no doubt: this is Bowie singing about himself, or at least about one of the many selves in his huge wardrobe of alternative personae. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the latter-day punk rocker of Tin Machine: who David Bowie Is, in fact, is a question this exhibition cannot and does not begin to try to answer.

"He's chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature," sings Bowie on Hunky Dory in 1971 in an otherwise impenetrable mishmash of lyrics called The Bewlay Brothers. "I'm gay and I always have been," says Bowie in 1972 - married at that time to Angie Barnett - in an interview with Melody Maker. Pop music was so serious back in the '60s; Bowie explored it as performance and provocation. "Not sure if you're a boy or a girl," went Rebel Rebel on Diamond Dogs in 1974; the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto was later to say he liked making clothes for Bowie because he was "neither man nor woman". Guy Peellaert's remarkable cover art for the Diamond Dogs album, incidentally, showed him as half-man, half-dog. Take your pick.

You can see why the fifty-year career of David Bowie provides rich pickings for London's Victoria and Albert Museum, which is devoted to the decorative arts. For a start, Bowie's butterfly enthusiasms meant he pursued practically everything the museum covers - fashion, graphics, photography, fine art, acting and dance as well as music - albeit with the sort of obsessive determination more commonly associated with ants. "I think we had objects from every curatorial department," says Victoria Broackes, one of the exhibition's two curators, "even Asian arts, because we wanted a kabuki costume."

Most of the swirl of objects in the David Bowie Is exhibition - letters, lyrics, the extraordinary costumes by Yamamoto, Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler, his first saxophone, a Paris hotel bill for two-thousand francs, film clips and posters, a transcript of a remarkable interview he did with William Burroughs, the crystal ball from the film Labyrinth, the boots he wore as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation Of Christ - are not from the museum, but from a vast personal archive. Even as a schoolboy, Bowie had craved fame: "I was ambitious in my head, but not like he was," his school friend George Underwood told biographer Paul Trynka. Quite clearly, he also expected to be significant.

It was Bowie who approached the museum, through an intermediary, offering them his seventy-five-thousand-item archive and a free rein with its display and interpretation. The curators have never met him, however; he remained at a long and judicious distance and has given no accompanying interviews. "Which we found disappointing at first," says Broackes, "and then frustrating but, ultimately, I think it was absolutely necessary. Because the way Bowie works, as we came to realise, is with such control and such attention to detail that it could only then have been his exhibition... We infer that he wouldn't have been able to be slightly involved."

Bowie is a perfect fit for the museum in another way, too. His fortunes have certainly waxed and waned - go back twenty-five years and he was a has-been, as unfashionable as it was possible to be; twenty years before that, during the Berlin period spent working with Brian Eno, he had apparently left the mainstream behind for what was then regarded as arcane art music - but these days, Bowie is British heritage, an unofficial living national treasure.

What one realises at the outset of the exhibition is that even back in his gayest days, all his camp sauciness owed as much to seaside postcards and music-hall as it did to the dark alleyways of sexuality invoked by someone like Lou Reed; it was a playful spirit that was also evident in British pop art. The first thing you see is a video clip from the ABC News in 1970 in which British artists Gilbert and George, having been invited to Sydney, presented themselves as a living sculpture posing to a recording of Underneath The Arches in suits and bowler hats. That was baffling for the viewers - I can still remember my father's stony response - but at the same time, immediately recognisable as English eccentricity.

Bowie, in all his '70s pomp, was ostensibly more outrageous than Gilbert and George, but there was still something easy and familiar about the act, even when he was pretending to fellate Mick Ronson's guitar. "The spectacle worked so well, thanks in part to its obvious amateurishness, its visible seams," wrote Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books three years ago, discussing the then latest spate of Bowie biographies. "Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars evidently were not from Mars: they didn't look like aliens so much as a bunch of overgrown kids playing at dressing up - which was, in its way, even more alluring. We may be different, they seemed to be saying, but we're also just like you." Boys from the suburbs, in other words, who had read the right books - Bowie, who barely scraped through school, said he would carry the influential novels of the day poking out of his pocket as accessories until he found himself reading them, which became his education - but who also, like Ziggy, played guitar.

David Bowie was born David Jones in Brixton, a solidly working-class suburb of South London, in 1947. The Jones family then moved up in the world to Bromley; in his review of the David Bowie Is exhibition for the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma quotes J.G. Ballard's description of this band of post-war London suburbs as "far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas."

David, studying art and design at a technical school, joined a band at fifteen. A clip in the exhibition shows him being interviewed on television with his band The Kon-rads when he was not yet twenty and purportedly promoting a new organisation to defend long-haired men. Bowie, still called Jones at that stage, has a Prince Valiant bonce that makes him look like Brian Jones and the bleating accent of a South Londoner trying unsuccessfully to sound posh. (A decade later, he would sound as if he were not long down from Oxbridge.) Not long after that television appearance, he changed his name so that he could not be confused with Davey Jones of The Monkees.

At that point, the exhibition curators leave David Jones behind. The archive affords almost no biographical detail. Angela Barnett scores one photograph. Iman, Bowie's wife of twenty years and a public figure in her own right, does not figure. Nor are the repellent remarks he made, presumably at his most coke-crazed, suggesting that Britain would benefit from a fascist leader, though these interviews certainly damaged him at the time. The exhibition text grazes over the cocaine addiction, while other personal calamities - such as his beloved brother's suicide while hospitalised for schizophrenia - are not mentioned at all. Anyone interested in the life story of David Bowie - or, perhaps, of David Jones - would do better to click on YouTube and watch the perfectly serviceable documentary that pops up in response.

The core question here is whether David Bowie and David Jones can or should be conflated. Even the curators cannot agree. "He hasn't toured or performed in public for a long time so when he wakes up in the morning in New York or wherever, is he David Jones or David Bowie? I have no idea," says Geoff Marsh who, along with Broackes, designed the exhibition. "He wouldn't tell me, anyway, so I wouldn't ask. But there were clearly considerable periods of his life when he was living as David Bowie." That said, he sees David Bowie as a performed character. David Jones is the private self.

"Geoff always says David Jones and David Bowie are completely different people and we don't know David Jones," says Broackes. On the contrary, she thinks she knows them both very well. "Bowie's theory was that we all have different identities within ourselves and that we should work hard to bring them out. David Jones is just one of them and we know him through Bowie."

It is a sense of intimacy - with somebody, whether it was the real David Bowie, a stage David Bowie or one of his many iterations - that seems to be shared by many of the people who have immersed themselves in the exhibition's memorabilia, the compelling soundtrack that pounds around it and Bowie's own voice, murmuring through the personal headphones provided at the door. I was never a huge fan - I had one or two albums, the usual quota for a student in the '70s - but I emerged feeling I had taken a journey through my own past.

"Loads of people who had been round it... said you know, I've seen two exhibitions, I've seen an exhibition about David Bowie and I've seen an exhibition about myself," says Marsh. The visitors' book, which has now travelled from London to Chicago and thence to Paris, includes plenty of melancholy observations from the middle-aged, comparing what Bowie has done - and continues to do, given that news came out just last week that he is working on a new musical as well as preparing a new series of box sets of his collected songs - with their own lives. Sad as that sounds, says Marsh, it is probably inevitable: the flip side of nostalgia. See, he did blow our minds after all.

David Bowie Is, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, July 16 - November 1.