Set designer and Prince super-fan Gary Card pens a personal account of his visit to the new My Name is Prince exhibition at the O2 Arena
Hello, my name is Gary and I am a Prince fanatic.
For over 30 years, Prince created music that experimented with almost every music genre of the 20th century – from rock, pop and soul, to jazz, hip-hop and techno, even classical music and opera. Like David Bowie and Madonna, he constantly evolved, changing his image with every project. These images became characters his fans could analyse; everything from his heels to his eye make-up were works of art, there for us to scrutinise and ponder upon.
My Name is Prince
Prince recorded obsessively, producing over 60 albums of original music and 20 for other artists over his lifetime. There were books, comics, videos, films produced by and about the man. There was official merch: candles, perfumes, crockery, even condoms (which were called ‘Purple Rain Coats’, lol). And that’s not to mention the unreleased music: 100s of leaked tracks, constantly streaming from his mysterious vault (a much mythologised containment facility that housed everything he ever recorded). Amazing music, sometimes even more exciting than his official releases! A mind-boggling array of things to track down, a never-ending treasure hunt. All from one man’s seemingly endless imagination.
With this in mind, my expectations for the new Prince exhibition show at the O2 Arena were high to say the least. I have fantasised about a Prince event like this for as long as I can remember. What would a Prince art show look like? The artwork for all of his projects played with psychedelia, pop art and science fiction imagery as well as Egyptian iconography. Surely a place that brought all of these elements together would be awe-inspiring.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the great man has been gone for only a year and that the wound is still raw for many of his devoted European fans. Will this show offer closure for them? Will it act as a kind of immersive Prince shrine?
I think about these things as I wait in the cold, unwelcoming O2 Arena. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning. I’m early and I’m eager. In fact, I’m a whole hour early, but I’m not alone – the queue is starting to build behind me.
At this point I'm going to be honest with you, dear readers: Another Man didn’t actually approach me to write this piece. I’ve known about this show for months and have been devising ways to get in ever since. I asked Another Man and they very sweetly obliged, sorting me out with an all-access pass to the press preview. What was interesting about the queue for this ‘press’ event was the dubious nature of the of so-called ‘press’. As the queue around me gets larger, I notice their frantic wide eyes and jittery fidgeting. Looking closer, I notice little Prince badges, symbols on t-shirts, purple scarfs and jackets – these people aren’t press at all! These are Prince nerd blaggers and they’ve conned their way into this event, just like me! I’m outraged! We wait for what seems like an eternity, like kids lining up to see Santa; fidgeting, shuffling, slyly sizing each other up and muttering.
Finally they lead us in, up the escalators, which was poignant for a lot of us because the last time we ascended these steps was to see Prince’s legendary 21-night residency in 2007, which took place at this very venue and were among the most remarkable shows we’d ever witnessed.
They lead us to the main entrance, which is next to the gift shop stocked with new shiny Prince things. We are tantalisingly close. We are reaching boiling point. Suddenly a big, low voice behind us bellows, “Comin’ through! Make way!” With this, Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson – complete with beefy security and entourage – scuttles past us.
We follow them in and a film greets us at the entrance. I’m too excited to sit through this however, so I dash over to a row of cabinets displaying some of Prince’s early guitars, the most significant of which is a wooden bass that would serve as prototype to his most beloved instrument – the cloud guitar. I look to my left and see another cabinet, this time displaying handwritten lyrics, sketches of costumes and, most interestingly, a sketch for his 1999 album cover with photos of his collage process that would later make up the final image. From here, we head into the Purple Rain period room, which houses some of his most opulent costumes, heavily detailed, vivid clashy colours. It’s a dream moment for me. At this point I confess I’m smelling the clothes. Is that his perfume? Is it lavender? Or a dry cleaning agent? Either way they had a scent.
The next room is the main event – a large exhibition area featuring a giant purple Prince symbol-shaped podium displaying costumes from the Cream video, the purple foil trench coat from 1999 and, my personal favourite, the cloud suit from the Raspberry Beret video, the sight of which brings tears to my eyes.
To be up close to this stuff is amazing. The attention to detail is remarkable – one piece is a kind of Mozart-meets-90s-Versace silk blouse with a massive book page collar. Each side features lyrics to two songs from the Hits collection, Peach and Pink Cashmere, in handwritten calligraphy. I notice the gigantic cuffs are made up of pink and peach stripes. It’s this level of detail that has kept Prince nerds like me enthralled for 30 years. Rumour has it that in the late 80s, he would assign a particular sized button to his bandmates’ stage costumes according to the look and feel of their face. This is probably rubbish but he was so particular about so many areas of his career that it seems plausible.
Another of my favourites is his ‘Batdance’ look – a half-Batman, half-Joker themed costume split right down the middle, which is as bizarre as it is brilliant. I’m just about to take a picture of the purple bat symbols on the toes of the mustard suede heels when a friendly but rather panicked tour guide politely orders me to not to take that picture. This costume it seems is off limits, like a number of artefacts on display.
After I got over the childlike wonder and excitement of being there, I couldn’t help feeling a little empty. The more I look around, the more I notice how much of this man’s extraordinary life has been left out. Perhaps I was expecting a more ‘experience’-led exhibition, in a similar vein to the V&A’s wildly popular Savage Beauty show where each room told a story. It all seemed a bit… small. Maybe it’s the Willy Wonker-ness of Prince’s world that set me up for expecting bigger things. The job of pleasing this particular Prince nerd is made all the more difficult by the fact that I’m a set designer, who has worked on creating immersive experiences like this my entire career. Slightly disheartened, I leave through the gift shop where I buy everything in sight.
I’m probably being too hard on the exhibition, after all, Prince’s fan base is notoriously difficult to please. But who can blame us, we’ve been spoiled by him. Maybe the responsibility falls on us now, the fanatical nerds, to preserve, maintain and build on his legacy. Prince has done the work; he’s made not just music, but a rich visual world full of vivid characters and places. Maybe it’s our job now to flesh out those places, build on his foundation and make new things inspired by the mythology he created. Maybe in ten years time a nerd like me will create a new exhibition, expanding on the O2 show, and create an experience that explores the extraordinary world Prince imagined.
My Name is Prince is at The O2 Arena.