Saturday, 6 July 2013

David Bowie is...

disappointing. Not a word I would ever have thought to connect with Mr B, but true.

Since forever, I have been a David Bowie fan. Back in the day, when my schoolfriends were debating the relative merits of Donny Osmond vs. David Cassidy, I couldn't be bothered with either of them. I preferred the weirdness of David Essex in 'Shine On' and was hooked by 'John I'm Only Dancing' and 'The Jean Genie' (I was a little late learning about pop, having been raised in a classical household). I saw Bowie only once, on the Serious Moonlight Tour, but then my student budget was always torn by the relative costs of food, books and music. The only reason I stopped buying the albums in the late 80s was the rising cost of children's paraphernalia. I should probably rectify some of those gaps now so that I can rip the rest of his oeuvre to my phone.

So I was really excited when my OH revealed that our mystery trip on Sunday, for which I had had to get up surprisingly early, was to the David Bowie retrospective at the V&A museum. I'd been aware that it had been on, but I usually find out about these things long after they've either finished or sold out. For a change, I was in on one of the Big Things.

To begin with, there were timed tickets. That should make sure that there is an even distribution of people going in, so that rather than being part of a crush to see things, you are part of a constant trickle. Should. Didn't.

Then there was the audio tour. Note, not an audio guide. They are very clear about that on the leaflet the girl handed to us before we got our audio sets. The idea was to provide a soundscape to the things we were about to see, in which proximity to the displays linked to a particular piece of the soundtrack, whether music or commentary. Quite a nice idea, especially when used to provide a soundscape for a musician.

I'm not sure how far apart the various timed entrances were, but it seemed as if our 10.30 entrance had been shared by about thirty people. They were all in the first room, I think, but it was quite dark so it was difficult to see. And because they were all there, it was also difficult to see the exhibits. When I finally got closer, I discovered there were small panels of writing underneath the various objects/photographs, usually white print on a coloured background. Difficult to read in the dark, especially when aware of all the other people around trying to get to the point where they could see *something*. At least at this point there seemed to be only one direction in which to move, so we all shuffled forward occasionally, and if someone needed to spend longer reading or studying an artefact, well, we just had to wait, or skip it. I'll be honest, I skipped a few. These were of his early years, stuff I could find elsewhere without waiting for someone else to finish reading it on the internet.

After a display of oranges, which appeared to have slipped slightly, and a short video of Gilbert and George with an soundtrack which I heard at least four times while waiting to move on, we went into the second room. There was a brief moment when the soundscape changed, and then I was back to the Gilbert and George soundtrack. Several more times.  I went back to a docent/guard to ask about it and he gave directions to where I could change the headset. I did try to follow the direction, but 'go to the end of the next room and turn left' was a bit too vague when the rooms are serpentine at best. I headed back to the OH, still listening to Gilbert and George, where my noble OH swapped headsets with me; for some reason, it started to behave. It must have known he would take no prisoners. Either that, or it realised that by moving forward six more inches, we could hear the Bowie medley being played over loudspeakers in the next room. At the same time as the soundscape. At which point, I took the headset off.

The costumes were interesting to look at but again, the low-level lighting - presumably to protect the fabrics - made it very difficult to read the information panels. I really would have preferred a more regular audiotour. The same criticism can be applied to the hand-written lyrics and notes for album covers. The point at which the audioset really was useful was at the compilation of film roles, when the dialogue could be heard, although since everyone was seeing the same thing at the same time, they could just as easily have put the sound over a public system in that room.

I don't want to give the impression that there was nothing I enjoyed about the exhibition: we spent nearly two hours there, including the obligatory exit via the giftshop. But this exhibition has received rave reviews from the critics and I can only assume that the critics got to see it without hordes of the general public blocking their view, because the general public will stand in the way when you want to see things and it will take all the time it wants to do so (I should know, I'm part of the general public!). Ultimately, I felt the only way to see all the information was to buy the book before I left the giftshop and that annoys me. A souvenir should be what it means - a memory, not a first viewing.

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