Once in a while, a museum exhibition comes along that simply wows you with a sense of “I must see this!” glee and excitement! Like a Van Gogh retrospective or the Tut Exhibition from back in the day, the MCA’s David Bowie Is was such an experience.
Created by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, this exhibition is the first to examine Bowie as a powerful figure in music, art design, theatre and film. It also emphasizes his impact on contemporary culture through the lens of his creative process and multiple collaborations. The exhibition, which opened on September 23, 2014 and closed on January 4, 2015 was a pretty big deal. The MCA Chicago was the only American venue for David Bowie Is, making it the epicenter for music freaks, artists and pop culture junkies.
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One of the things I took away from the exhibition was that as a performer, Bowie’s live concerts, set designs and videos utilize his passion for the theater. I always had an appreciation for them but I had not thought of them in this context. Another interesting takeaway was that Bowie’s work, while appreciated by a wide variety of people, is viewed and loved differently by his fans. Our perception of Bowie is shrouded in mystique. This is due in large part to the fact that the Thin White Duke has taken great care to never let a fixed image of himself take hold in the public consciousness.
Seeing David Bowie Is was as daunting as climbing Kilimanjaro. It was an intense experience. For starters it was crowded. I have seen a lot of museum exhibitions in my day but few of them were as filled with people as this one. Interestingly enough, folks were not wandering around aimlessly or being bored. They were engaged and taking in every bit of it. This immersive experience also examines Bowie’s substantive work by utilizing current technology. The audio tour moves with you as music and narration from both Bowie and his collaborators are triggered by motion and proximity to the display that is the subject matter.
The content itself is mostly taken directly from Bowie’s personal archives and supplemented with additional material from a few outside sources. Spanning his career, it features over 400 objects including costumes, photographs, videos, instruments, song lyrics, set designs, album artwork and of course, the music itself–that all serve to recognize the magnitude of his body of work.
It begins with David Jones’ upbringing in Postwar Britain where exposure to literature, art, theater and music shaped the young lad. Eventually his career as a graphic designer was chucked aside for a career in music. He changed his name to David Bowie in 1965 and the rest is history.
Included here are sketches by a young Bowie along with records from two of his early musical influences, Little Richard and The Beatles. Bowie’s fondness for reading and film are also brought to the surface, leading into the creation of 1969’s Space Oddity.
From here, visitors get a taste of his creative process via songwriting, production, art, costumes and set design. The breadth of Bowie’s interests is explored via his appreciation of musicals, Kabuki, German Expressionism, avant-garde mimes, Surrealism, and the theater of Berthold Brecht. All of this came together and germinated inside Bowie, shaping his music and manufactured personas. An extension of this process is explored by exploring the aliases created by Bowie himself. Each of these characters has their own style, backstory and idiosyncrasies, which allow him to become the creations he envisioned with complete artistic freedom.
It is this part of the exhibition where the story of Ziggy Stardust is told with great detail. Also on display are costumes he wore as Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. Fans also get to see press clippings, fan art, lyric sheets and album artwork with design notations for several albums including The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory. Bowie’s transferring of these characters from album to the stage is explored through a series of costumes, set designs and a video of his 1972 performances on Top of The Pops.
Massive room after massive room unfolds in throughout the exposition and the next one examines his process for making albums. For Bowie making an album is an all-consuming affair. This theme is explored with great detail with music videos, costumes and designs for an abandoned musical that would latter manifest itself as the Diamond Dogs album. I knew very little about the making of that record and found the storyboards, abandoned artwork and concert footage to be compelling.
Bowie’s song creation process is illustrated his handwritten lyrics for several of his biggest songs including “Fame,” “Fashion,” “Ashes to Ashes” and “Rebel Rebel.” The story behind his collaboration with John Lennon on “Fame” was particularly interesting. Bowie’s cut up style of lyrical configuration is also featured here. Also included is a 1972 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Ever the perfectionist, Bowie took great care to execute this performance on his terms.
It was interesting to see how Bowie was a creature of his surroundings, beginning with his work in London, then moving to Los Angeles and Berlin. Relics from each of these creative eras are displayed, including his coke spoon from his time in LA and the room keys for his residence in Berlin. The Black and White era of Bowie’s career in Berlin is focused in great detail with attention to the trio of albums he made during this time (Low, Heroes and The Lodger). His work with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno are highlighted along with some paintings, videos and a sketched self-portrait he did for the Heroes album cover. There’s also an early synthesizer, later given to him as a gift from Brian Eno, used during the electro phase of his career.
Next up was a comprehensive look at Bowie’s stage and film work. There was some pretty great stuff here including props from Labyrinth and Basquiat. There’s also a note from Jim Henson inviting him to be in Labyrinth and a signed Playbill from John Hurt for The Elephant Man. After that was a screening room featuring clips of Bowie’s movie roles in such movies as The Prestige, Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell To Earth and Basquiat. Bowie’s interest in cinema and stage made his transition to those mediums almost seamless.
Saving the best for last, the final section of David Bowie Is chronicles various tours and concerts. Ambitiously envisioned and executed, Bowie’s tours are noted for their elaborate sets, daring costumes and unified themes. To understand David Bowie as a performer you must accept his fashion sense as iconic. With his performances he takes great care to feature both up and coming and established designers. Thus, Bowie’s contribution to fashion is almost as significant as his musical output. Throughout his career he has worked with almost everyone of note in the industry, including Giorgio Armani, Thierry Mugler, Issey Miyake and Kansai Yamamoto. David Bowie Is includes a batch of costumes he wore for various tours, videos and album covers, including the infamous Union Jack coat designed by Steve McQueen.
If that was not enough sensory overload, the exhibition closes out with music videos for “DJ,” “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and another Top of The Pops clip. Interspersed amongst more costumes as well as concert footage from Live Aid and the 2001 Concert For New York City.
The key to any good exhibition is programming and the MCA made sure their patrons were saturated with a variety of Bowie-related events including a David Bowie Film Festival, a gala and presentations from Bryan Ferry, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, St. Vincent, Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes and a closing weekend visit from Neil Gaiman.
Enhancing the exhibition were musical performances by Boy George, Michael Clark Company, Bobby Conn, Disappears, Tim Kinsella, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, ONO, and White Mystery.
When it was all said and done, the fifteen-week exhibition was like a mini tour of sorts, drawing over 193,000 people to the MCA. Those who came were not just celebrities, musicians or artists; they were fans that represented the wide-ranging appeal of David Bowie.
If you missed David Bowie Is in Chicago you can still catch it at the Philharmonie de Paris, Cité de la Musique in Paris (March–May 2015), the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (July–Nov 2015), and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (December 2015–March 2016).