After the unprecedented success of David Bowie Is, which smashed through the 1m visitors milestone, the V&A has no doubt been scouring its archives for pop-related detritus. The Beatles were widely covered in its subsequent You Say You Want A Revolution?, and presumably American giants Prince and Michael Jackson would prove difficult for the gallery to gather the requisite amount of memorabilia.
The V&A settled for prog-rock stalwarts Pink Floyd, a band that attracts almost as much sneering derision (Johnny Rotten famously wore an “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt, although he later admitted to being a secret fan) as it does adoration. And once again, the museum comes up trumps. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains is less an exhibition than a full-frontal sensory assault, an utterly transportive experience that leaves you in no doubt as to the importance of the band not only in the annals of rock history but in wider popular culture.
The band lends itself well to this type of show; founding members Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright met while studying architecture, and the visual aspect of their gigs has always been as important as the audio (they used to credit the lighting engineer as their fifth member).
An early room plunges you into a dark, gig-like environment (black vinyl floors run throughout, a small detail that immediately creates a mental divide between this and more conventional exhibitions), where psychedelic slide projections ooze across the ceiling. Later rooms feature vast props including the band’s famous inflatables (most notably the pig seen floating above Battersea Power Station on the sleeve of Animals, which broke free from its moorings during the photo-shoot and had to be retrieved from Kent) and the giant metal heads from The Division Bell. These objects give the show a surreal, Alice in Wonderland quality, brilliantly in keeping with Roger Waters’ ever more ambitious ideas.
As you wander through the huge spaces, audio tracks bombard you on the mandatory headset, giving the gallery full control over your senses (these tracks often compete for your attention; even when you’re standing still, clips fade in and out seemingly arbitrarily, thwarting attempts to concentrate on any one thing).
The album artwork of Storm Thorgerson plays a central role, with his iconic “burning man” cover for Wish You Were Here filling an entire room, accompanied by interviews with the band and the model who almost set his face alight making it. Likewise the work of satirical artist Gerald Scarfe on concept album The Wall is present in all its unhinged glory, with giant leering puppets dangling from the ceiling, hinting at not only the band’s ambitions, but also its rapidly crumbling mental state (Waters left one album later and Nick Mason once quipped that he’s been in therapy ever since).
The acrimony that dogged Pink Floyd for much of its existence is largely glossed over in favour of outright triumphalism, which is understandable given how involved the band members have been in compiling the exhibits, but it’s slightly disappointing nonetheless. But that’s a small gripe; the central narrative of Their Mortal Remains is that Pink Floyd changed the face of music, paving the way for the spectacular live-shows of modern stadium-fillers like Kanye West and Lady GaGa.
For Pink Floyd fans, this show is nigh-on unmissable, and even non-believers will have their resolve sorely tested. This is yet another multimedia masterclass from the V&A.
First published in City A.M.