Amy: Beyond the Stage at Design Museum is a bittersweet triumph
There are echoes of the V&A’s famous David Bowie exhibition to this new show at the Design Museum, which charts the legacy of another pop icon: Amy Winehouse.
Ten years after her death, her rise and fall remains as poignant as ever. And while the Design Museum might not seem like the most obvious place for such a retrospective, the result is a bittersweet triumph.
At first there appears to be a conflict between the desire to present Winehouse – perhaps the closest the mid-2000s had to a counter-culture figure – as someone who can be reduced to a series of aesthetic principles.
But it quietly wins you over, not through the iconic objects it collects – the Camden Square sign emblazoned with condolences in the wake of her death; a mocked-up recording studio – but through the insights it offers into the minutia of her life.
Not only is her talent clear from an early age – there are poems written by a 12-year-old Winehouse that would make absolutely banging pop songs – but signs she started to map out her distinctive style many years before she arrived, apparently fully formed, in the public sphere. There’s a drawing she made of a “Waffle Waitress” wearing the kind of kitsch Americana-style dress she would later become famous for; there’s a checklist, written in a girlish cursive, of her ‘fame goals’ – including “be photographed by David LaChapelle”, which she later achieved. You are left with the impression of a girl who dreamt of fame, planned for it, before being consumed by it.
Elsewhere there’s a stack of her old CDs – from Miles Davis to Sheryl Crow to Ben Folds Five – piled up on an old bedroom cabinet (CDs now look like objects of ancient history, which is a little terrifying for the teenagers of the 1990s). And everywhere are love hearts – scrawled in the margins of song lyrics, graffitied onto the inside of her pink leather handbag, adorning the edges of her sketches. And, with her hits haunting the soundtrack, it’s kind of heartbreaking.
Even in her early years she seemed ambivalent to fame – a recording of her on Jonathan Ross, for example, is both self assured and anxious. It’s placed next to a wall of newspaper cuttings from the more high-brow press charting her long decline (as a young news reporter I was once sent to watch one of her concerts on the off-chance something newsworthy might happen, such was her level of fame and infamy).
If this all sounds rather melancholy, there’s also joy: her outfits make up a huge portion of the show, iteration upon iteration of the dress she drew as a child, complete with footage and photos of her performing in them. And then there are the awards, and the records, and the instruments…
The only slight disappointment is a final room that tries to “reinterpret Amy’s energy as a live performer” through projections and sound. Nobody could do that. But the Design Museum at least makes a spirited attempt.