In 2007, Prince played a 21 night residency at the O2 Arena, turning the vast, impersonal Greenwich dome into a musical home from home. A year after his shocking and untimely death at the age of 57, the much loved multi-instrumental superstar is back in residence.
Or, at least, that seems to be the idea. My Name Is Prince is an exhibition of items from his legendary Minneapolis estate, Paisley Park, a neatly laid out display of dozens of outlandish costumes and personalised instruments from across his career, set to a backdrop of Prince music and videos, with atmospheric stage lighting sweeping across purple walls and floors. There really is a lot of purple. Prince liked purple, apparently.
That, unfortunately, is about the level of revelation you can expect. The outfits are flamboyant and fabulous, elaborately patterned, sequined and brocaded and certainly worth a peek. Stiffly arrayed on spot-lit platforms, sported by a small battalion of shop window dummies, they look like costumes from a science-fiction show set in an alternative future where the human race has shrunk.
What is genuinely striking when you see all of Prince’s stage clothes arranged together is how short he was. There is a whole cabinet of shiny, glittery, colourful boots, all sporting six inch high heels, which he wore to extend his natural 5’3”. The smallness, though, is also bizarrely emphasised by the use of headless mannequins. It makes a rather sad visual metaphor for an exhibition that gives you everything but the man himself.
Prince can be seen on multiple screens, playing and dancing in music videos, posing on posters and record covers, but these are all overly familiar images. There is very little on display that fans won’t already be well acquainted with. It is certainly intriguing to gawp at the branded artefacts and admire his custom built leopard skin and curlicue shaped guitars, but there is almost nothing intimate or personal on display, no attempt to reveal the man behind the myth.
Only one cabinet in the whole exhibition contains some notebooks of lyrics, with only a couple of pages facing up to be read. The slightly tatty contents stand in marked contrast to the polished slickness of everything else on display. There is an otherworldly frisson in contemplating the everyday banality of branded Office Max stationary covered in Prince’s handwriting. His bold, purposeful penmanship, speckled with urgent capitals, offers a rare glimpse of an inner life, evidence of an actual human being at work, conjuring up the fantasy displayed all around us with just the power of his imagination.
There is one room in the exhibition that made me deeply sad, offering up a sterile recreation of Paisley Park itself. The legendary building has all the charm of a business centre. Every room has been photographed empty, while an empty costume stands guard over his antiseptic empire. Was Prince really this isolated and lonely? It made me yearn for some evidence of Prince’s other life, so deeply expressed in the wild adventures and emotional riches of his music.
Assembled with the assistance of his surviving siblings and heirs, this is an exhibition that ignores Prince’s religious conversion to Jehovah’s Witness, turns a blind eye to his love and sex life, blurs over his complicated family history and all but erases every musician he ever played with.
All that is left to display are the artefacts of his brand. It is a peak behind the scenes that just shows another artfully staged scene. The V&A’s David Bowie Is and The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains exhibitions have showed what kind of creative synergy and enlightenment might be realised in an ambitiously and lovingly curated rock and roll exhibition.
That is the kind of exhibition Prince deserves. Unfortunately, like the O2’s Elvis exhibition in 2014 (sanctioned and curated by the Presley estate), this has zero interest in doing anything more than perpetuating a myth. Customers exit through the gift shop, where they can purchase Prince branded T-shirts, mugs and memorabilia but all it really memorialises is the exhibition itself. Prince has long since left the building.
Until Jan 7; tickets: theo2.co.uk