The Physical

In the mind of someone living



(I can’t sit still man,

it’s like there’s fire in my legs man,

it’s got a hold on me,

telling me to do stuff I can’t do,

to say stuff I could never even dream of saying.

I’m moving like an animal, man.)



Film: Imogen Pring

Music: Tom Field

I hope everyone has a good Pesach this weekend. I know it’s actually on monday, but I can’t imagine my family’s going to be the only one doing it a day early for the sake of ease. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent edition of the Haggadah is very interesting and beautiful, try and find a copy if you can.

David Bowie Is

The original publication of this review can be found at The version on there is pretty heavily edited, so I thought I’d put the full thing up here.


In the foyer of David Bowie Is, a film rolls of a young Gilbert and George proclaiming ‘living is one big sculpture’. This mantra forms the crux of the exhibition, three years in the making and commendably ambitious in scope. Viewed through 21st Century eyes, David Bowie’s innovations can occasionally be dismissed as fissures in an innocent past. However, the V&A’s vibrant displays and forceful ideas revitalise his work in the context of the man, the timeframe and the modern age.

The artists’ phrase is one easily applied to Bowie at the height of his shapeshifting powers; but prior to the whizz-bang of Ziggy, Aladdin et al, we also witness a young man wrestling with the most appropriate structures through which to display his talents.

Backlit by early idols like Little Richard, the Bowie of the 60s is one of little revolutions rather than cataclysmic shift. The one christened Davy Jones cycles through a few looks, by turns coffee-house Bohemian with a thousand-yard stare, post-Jagger bluesman and experimental mime artist. Just as young people of every generation wrestle with inverting history’s pyramid by any means, Bowie flits between ideas, several different people rather than a series of personas orbiting the moon of Bowie-ness.

The first of these crystallized characters roars onto the scene as Ziggy Stardust, and it’s here that the V&A provides the first superb marriage of presentation and content. Warped by angled mirrors, the 1972 Top of the Pops ‘Starman’ performance throws one forty years back, tenacious and thrilling even now. Propped in front is the snakelike ‘Droog’ suit of that very same clip.

On the opposite wall, lyric sheets for the early anthem ‘Five Years’ – ‘It was cold, and it rained,/So I felt like an actor’ – begin setting out those notions by which the exhibition comes to pinpoint his allure.

Being born almost a decade after what is generally considered his last great LP (1983’s Let’s Dance), the fervour around his new record The Next Day has coincided with my first experience of Bowie as an active figure in contemporary culture. I missed the space race, Warhol, the Cold War – everything that framed Bowie and Bowie framed in turn comes to me as another generation’s cultural capital. With David Bowie Is, a new rabble of Bowie-devotees can revel in his unique notions surrounding the role of the performer.

Along with the sound and vision, a large part of Bowie’s image control derives from his unique understanding of the methods by which his output will be presented. A new artist in the modern age would have nothing like the leeway Bowie was given between 1969’s Space Oddity and the Top of the Pops moment, sculpting and preening before the reveal.

What is expertly demonstrated are the fearless revolutions of his own pre-established artistic lineage – prototype artworks for The Next Day, in the vein of the defaced “Heroes” sleeve, display beneath the vast canvas for Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, itself built from whitewashed Bowie stills. Though the route to stardom may have been lengthy, once there his understanding of the means of display available to him kept his public in constant flux, energised by invention and expecting the unexpected.

That ‘actor’ moment of transformative imagination, creating a space of endless possibility inside your spot on Earth, is exploded by a fabulous Kansai Yamomoto piece. It stands, raised, amid a shower of books and portraits of Bowie’s respected contemporaries – Burroughs, Dylan and so on. It’s Bowie the cultural chameleon taken to the extreme, streamlining the most important movements of seemingly every arts discipline through the divining rod of himself, and a hugely arresting moment.

Other outfits benefit from unified display. The severe lines of Bowie’s Thin White Duke come with a draft of lyrics for ‘Station to Station’ where all save the infamous refrain have been discarded, a neat summation of the character’s stripped-away humanity. His 1983 ‘Screaming Lord Byron’ costume, a billowing Paisley dream, channels the spirits of Wilde and Hendrix that shadow the show. However, some pieces, like a 1997 Vivienne Westwood suit, dazzle on their own terms.

For David Bowie Is, his secret lies in opening up the otherworldly potential in everyday life. His world is the same as yours, but seen through the film of stardust that appears sprinkled on the covers of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust… Placed behind wire mesh, the costumes of the monolithic final room take on this mystic zeal, shimmering beneath projections of iconic late-period concerts. Opposite, a goon squad of outfitted mannequins trample over footage of the Berlin Wall coming down, a candle held to the triumph of the free-thinking, free-acting human that is the career of David Bowie.

Perhaps forever a Peter pan figure, David Bowie Is establishes him as one who brightens the realities of every generation via the hazy cosmic jive of his living sculpture. Where are we now? We’re in David Bowie’s future, with him as past and present.