Pierrot costume designed by Natasha Korniloff for David Bowie’s 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” video.

Pierrot costume designed by Natasha Korniloff for David Bowie’s 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” video.

“David Bowie is”

Victoria and Albert Museum

Pierrot costume designed by Natasha Korniloff for David Bowie’s 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” video.

Watching David Bowie’s screen test at Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1971 is excruciating. Moments before it was recorded, the artist had reacted with typical blankness to a playback of Bowie’s song “Andy Warhol,” and the young singer, his flowing hippie tresses capped by a widebrimmed hat, can barely bring his eyes to meet the camera. For a few moments, he self-consciously acts out the old mime routine of being trapped in a box; then, sheepishly, he gives up. He may have failed in his attempt to engage with Pop art, but his multiple transformations would soon set the terms for what we now loosely call art rock. In 1996, he ended up portraying Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, tricked out in the artist’s own silver wig and handbag.

This is one of the many remarkable, overlapping career trajectories mapped out in “David Bowie is,” curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, a massive show spanning Bowie’s entire career to date and including stage costumes, concert posters, handwritten lyrics, instruments, diaries, sketches for unrealized projects, film clips, and a room full of colossal projections of live performances. These artifacts can be highly revealing—as is the felt-tip storyboard drawing of a drowning Pierrot that presaged the video for “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)—or uncomfortably intimate. There’s a coke spoon that the singer kept in his jacket pocket during the mid-’70s; elsewhere is a page scrawled in Bowie’s childlike handwriting, outlining secondby- second lighting cues during his Station to Station tour. Even when his drug use was causing psychological damage, his brain was still exercising high levels of artistic control.

Bowie’s sheer doggedness was already evident in the late 1960s, when he was attempting multiple routes to fame: via cinema (an early appearance in Michael Armstrong’s 1967 avant-garde film The Image), theatrical mime with Lindsay Kemp, and the idealistic South London “arts lab” (its typewritten manifesto a model of earnest radicalism) he organized. A room whose wall bears the legend DAVID BOWIE IS. . . PLAGIARISM OR REVOLUTION reveals the surprising precedents for some of his most idiosyncratic creations: One of the garish costumes of his breakthrough character Ziggy Stardust is discovered to have been manufactured from 1930s-style furniture fabric, registering a core of retrospection at the heart of Bowie’s progressive impulses. In Berlin in 1977, he took up painting as therapy: Next to the EMS synthesizer used by Brian Eno on that year’s albums Low and “Heroes”, visitors find Bowie’s expressionist oils of his friend Iggy Pop.

When Nicolas Roeg made the brilliant decision to cast Bowie as an alien outsider in his 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, he instinctively recognized that Bowie’s career was already a commentary on itself: that to some extent, like the character he played in the film, Bowie was staring at the world, pop music, and his role within them as though from another planet. In a video for 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie satirized his previous flirtations with gay culture by appearing both as a macho vocalist and as three trashy transvestites. It’s the unstable persona here that’s so charismatic; Bowie keeps dismantling his own image even as he produces new ones. Edward Bell’s original collage for 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) LP displays the same cut-up influence as Bowie’s lyrics at the time, including chopped-up and whitewashed “samples” of previous covers, just as Bowie’s latest album, The Next Day (2013), features an obscured image of the “Heroes” cover. The clown outfit from the video of “Ashes to Ashes” (a song that referenced the Major Tom character from Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity”) is the most resonant of all the costumes here. In the figure of Pierrot, Bowie’s artistic strategies were laid bare—not only was this “the alter ego of the artist,” but, as he put it in a 1972 diary entry, “Music is the Pierrot.” Of all Bowie’s many shifting shapes over the years, this clown figure proved to be the best model for creating the distancing effect he craved between himself and his art. This intelligently presented, vibrant exhibition acknowledges that Bowie’s entire career has been a map of itself unfolding.

Rob Young