Pink Floyd have always had an enigmatic unknowable edge. As Guardian critic Alexis Petrides observes: “Few bands in rock history have ever been as creative in their attempts to distract attention from themselves”. I managed to see the group live on three occasions in the 1970s/80s on tours promoting their albums Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. Not so much concerts as multimedia spectaculars, these performances were notable for their (then) innovative use of sound systems, light shows, pyrotechnics, video, inflatables and gigantic props. In The Wall concerts the group took alienation to extremes, hiding itself behind a gigantic wall for much of the second half of the show. Plenty of interesting fuel then for the retrospective exhibition Their Mortal Remains at the V & A Museum.
Museum going can be as dull as the proverbial ditchwater and leave you feeling that you have attended out of some sort of cultural duty. Not a bit of it with this extravaganza though. Carefully curated, fascinatingly presented, comprehensive and often moving, this exhibition is a feast for the senses and if you are of a certain age (as I am) it will undoubtedly bring back many memories of adolescence/young adulthood.
You know you’re in for something a bit different when you start by entering through an oversized replica of the band’s tour van to find yourself firmly back in the mid 1960s – all Bridget Riley walls covered with trippy posters and flower power clothing; you can almost smell the joss sticks. Alice must have felt like this when she fell down that rabbit hole. The early days are dominated by the presence of Syd Barrett and there is a particularly sweet letter to a girlfriend of the time. But, of course, his personal troubles meant an early departure and David Gilmour’s recruitment to become part of the classic line up.
From here the exhibition is largely chronological with some brief diversions into themed elements (film music, sound recording techniques, etc.) and this means that things get progressively grander and larger than life. At the midpoint of the exhibition (late 70s/early 80s) you find yourself in a room dominated by an enormous flying pig – as well as a flying fridge exploding with worms, a flying Spitfire and flying Gerald Scarfe designed characters from The Wall. This is Floyd and their collaborators at the height of their creativity (or their most ludicrous depending on your personal point of view). From here it is a slightly more genteel decline in bombast towards the new millennium but the spectacle and surprises are never far away. I was particularly taken with a full size reproduction of the album cover for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Constructed by resident Floyd designers Hipgnosis it features seven hundred hospital beds in a river formation stretching off into infinity. No Photoshop manipulation in those days – this was seven hundred actual beds; apparently the whole thing had to be reset the day after the original photoshoot as bad weather had ruined the picture!
The final room of the exhibition is a tour de force and a reminder of what the band did best – playing music; obvious really but a timely reminder of why they got as big as they did. Footage of their first single Arnold Layne gives way to the band’s brief reunion at Live 8 in 2005, the whole immersive experience relayed through state of the art AMBEO 3D Audio Technology (me neither). More shivers down the spine! I don’t think I’ve ever before been to an exhibition which received a standing ovation from those attending but then that was just one more unique aspect to finish a unique experience.
One caveat – having spent two and a half hours (unquestionable value then) immersing myself in artistic achievement and rich memories, I could have done without the rank commercialism which presented itself in the form of a huge souvenir shop into which we were thrust on leaving. Haven’t the V & A ever listened to the lyrics to “Money”?
Although the whole kit and caboodle is apparently going on tour (how very rock and roll) there’s not long left to get yourself to Kensington; but if you don’t you’ll miss a huge treat. What a sensational event.