I am standing in a queue at Burger King in Liverpool Street Station, when I spot, loitering in the middle of the central concourse, two subversive figures. They’re dressed in identical, tweedy suits, brogues, matching shirts and ties. On one man, this bespoke, dandy look would be interesting, but worn by two men, it starts to feel creepy and threatening. They look like Saville Row clones who have escaped from the set of Dr Who.
People, catching trains and making their way to the tedium of the office, cast looks at the improbable pair. Some even stop in their tracks to get a better look. A young woman takes a photo of them on her mobile phone. It’s impossible not to take a sneaky look. Of course, that’s what they want you to do. After all, they believe they are works of art. They are Gilbert and George.
The art of Gilbert and George is not only to be found in contemporary art gallery collections, but exists wherever they are – whether it’s having a builder’s tea in an East End caff or schmoozing with the art crowd in a Venice Biennalle pavilion. “Art for all” became their democratising slogan. Their art is provocative and populist. Art is not something Gilbert and George do, it is something they are. Their work and who they are have fused into one.
The first room of the David Bowie is exhibition contains a “singing sculpture” by Gilbert and George dating from 1969. Captured on film, the artistic duo, with their faces painted silver, dance and sing the Flanagan and Allen vaudeville standard, “Underneath the Arches” – a song in which two tramps describe the pleasures of sleeping rough.
In the polite atmosphere of the Victoria and Albert museum, opening this exhibition with Gilbert and George is like being welcomed with a Glasgow kiss. It’s not what you are expecting. It floors you and gives you a nosebleed. It’s a statement of intent. This is not going to be some reverential homage to an ageing pop star or a marketing exercise for his new album. This exhibition is going to make outlandish claims about David Bowie that will raise blood pressures, make pupils dilate and cause people to dance and sing along to some of the greatest songs in popular music. The curators, Victoria Broackers and Geoffrey Marsh, write in breathless fashion:
David Bowie is one of the most important artists of the last fifty…who channelled the avant-garde into the populist mainstream without compromising its subversive, liberating power. Bowie forms a link that connects Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, William Blake, Charlie Chaplin, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Philip Glass, Nietzsche, Hollywood glamour, graphic design, platform shoes, film, music, Kurt Weill, Berlin, New York, London, Alexander McQueen, the 2012 London Olympics, Jim Henson, the moon landings, Kansai Yamamoto, Kate Moss and Marshall McLuhan.
If they'd included Obi wan Kenobi, we would have had a full house of cultural icons. With any other rock star, this overblown catalogue could be written off as the spliff-induced ravings of the beret wearing, pretentious squad. But with Bowie, it all rings true and it becomes even more convincing as you make your way round this incredibly vibrant exhibition.
The exhibition claims a place for David Bowie among the artistic and cultural radicals. This is David Bowie as a performance artist. We are being asked to see the music, the costumes, sets, design, photos, mime, video, theatre and cultural references as a piece and not to separate them out. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, in Aristotelian terms. In other words, we come to understand that what Bowie does and who he is have become indistinguishable in our imaginations. Bowie is living as a complete performance and that is why we can’t take our eyes off him. He is the art and his art is for all.
Raiding the extensive Bowie archive, the exhibition curators reveal the range of Bowie’s artistic enterprise and ambition. For example, there are the costumes which allowed Bowie to play out his artfully constructed character fantasies: Uncle Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Clockwork Orange Droog, White Soul Boy, New Romantic Pierrot. Bowie sheds costumes like snakes shed skins. Some sixty dresses, suits, kimonos, jumpsuits, capes, frock coats and leotards are on display. They are evidence of how Bowie’s sartorial ambitions matched his musical ambitions.
Bowie’s clothes defy conventions. They break the rules of what men are supposed to wear. There is nothing grey, functional or Marks and Sparks about them. His clothes are all about androgynous glamour. They play with silhouettes, shape, form, texture and colour. Sexual ambivalence is stitched into their seams. Every pleat, vent and button hole is tailored to provoke a reaction. Bowie’s wardrobe belongs to him alone. No other man would be man enough to dress that way – Bowie’s way. Camille Paglia in her thoughtful exhibition catalogue essay, Theatre of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution, writes:
Like Wilde, who free-lanced as a fashion journalist, Bowie is a dandy for whom costume is an art form. But his lineage descends not direct from Beau Brummell but refracted through the English dandyism imported by French decadents such as the poet Charles Baudelaire, who portrayed the dandy as an arbiter of distinction, elegance and cold apartness – exactly like the Thin White Duke persona of Bowie’s 1975-6 tours. Barbey d’Aurevilly, Baudelaire’s friend and ally, called dandies “the Androgynes of History”.
One can only imagine what the local denizens of Bridlington Town hall and Torquay made of Ziggy Stardust as he strode their stages in a Kansai Yamamoto red leotard. I suspect they found it both appalling and thrilling…and isn’t that the point? The greatest art and artists have always subverted our mundane, bland versions of the world. They shake us from our imaginative and intellectual torpor and wake us to some new way of imagining ourselves.
The exhibition’s designers use every trick in their creative arsenal to expose you to the full power of Bowie’s creative vision. There’s the music, of course, but there is also innovative use of video, stills and documentary footage (I particularly enjoyed a piece from BBC’s Nationwide with a pompous Bernard Falk barely disguising his disgust at teenage girls screaming for a “freak with makeup”). Biographical details are scattered throughout the exhibition, the books that influenced Bowie fly above your head, Bowie’s story is found between the vinyl records you flick through as if you were in a Carnaby Street record shop. You do not move from one room to the next, but from one set to the next – one moment you’re with Bowie on Top of the Pops and next you are in a Berlin recording studio beside the great man and Brian Eno.
There are the pages of song lyrics written on scraps of paper with scrappy schoolboy handwriting. It looks like nothing and, you get nearer, and you read (scrawled on copy book paper):
Ziggy played for time
Jiving us that we was voodoo
The kids was just crass
He was the Nazz
With God-given arse
He took it all too far
But boy could he play guitar
And, in your imagination, the music kicks in and the rock anti-god, Ziggy Stardust, claims the stage again. It sends shivers down your spine. There are Bowie’s paintings, excerpts from his films (for example, Bowie playing a camp hobgoblin King in Labyrinth – not one of his finest moments) and theatre work (for example, Bowie played to critical claim, Joseph Merrick, in Bernard Pomerance’s play, The Elephant Man), storyboards, set designs…and all this leading you to the centre piece of the show: roof high video screens with Bowie performing “Heroes” live. It is mesmerising.
This is not an exhibition. This is full immersion into a single man’s creativity. It will make you gasp with excitement. It will make you laugh and smile. It will make you want to applaud and cheer. There is nothing solemn or “anorak” about this exhibition. It’s just super cool, super intelligent and super exciting…like the man himself.
If you are a Bowie fan, this is a reminder of why you are – why, like me, you love the man and love the music. If you think you might be a Bowie fan, this will make you one. If you are not a Bowie fan, go see a doctor.
David Bowie Is... at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London