I met David Bowie once. Correction, I met David Robert Jones once. I was living in New York City and working at an art store in Chinatown. As it turned out, he lived (or perhaps just had a studio space) across the street from our back door. I was walking west down the sidewalk and crossed in the middle of the street and there he was – his face to my face, all of about 18 inches apart. I mustered a somewhat ridiculous and dramatic gasp and declared, “you’re David Bowie.” To which he looked me flatly in the eye, bluntly responded, “Yes I am” and strode past me over my right shoulder down the street. I wasn’t prepared to awkwardly meet an icon on the curb on a dirty, cobblestone New York street; yet, in hindsight, it was frankly kind of perfect. I feel the same way about David Bowie Is, the first retrospective of the extraordinary career of one of the most pioneering and influential performers of our time, currently on view at the MCA Chicago.
A once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, I am immediately immersed into the evolution of a rock icon with more than 400 objects on view, encapsulating five decades of music, art, and fashion—including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, photography, set designs, album artwork, and rare performance material. Mostly compiled from his personal archive (rumored to house some 70,000-pieces), and organized chronologically, David Bowie Is traces the artist’s evolution from his years as a teenager in the 1950s to the early 2000s when he retired from touring. Of particular interest are the insights and humorous gems of wisdom from the artist himself about his early years, tracing his first musical steps, before he officially adopted the stage name David Bowie in 1965. From there, well, his abundant and extravagant incarnations simply steal the show.
On display are more than sixty stage costumes including the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972), designed by Freddie Burretti; Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973); and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997). Multimedia installations incorporating advanced sound technology, original animations, continuous audio accompaniment, and video installations immerse me in the sights and sounds of Bowie’s artistic life. With a location-based headset, I was able to nimbly move throughout the space, as I was interested, without loss of the audio components. Masterfully designed to coordinate with my location within and throughout the exhibit by sponsor Sennheiser, I enjoyed corresponding interviews, commentary and, of course, what I really came for – the music.
David Robert Jones, the actor and the artist, or David Bowie, the musician and the performer, is one of those rare and genuine chameleons that you can’t help but be captivated by. A pioneer and an inspiration, he is talented, charming, provocative, smart, and curious – always curious. From a young age, clearly, he was intent on being famous as is evident in both his own words as well as in the sheer volume of personal artifacts he archived throughout his career (as if he knew we would always be wanting more). His
metamorphosis into David Bowie has been an extraordinary foray into a world of exciting and experimental sounds, captivating theatrics, and endless vision. An innovator and guru – he is the artist who elevated music to an art form; and luckily for us, he carefully and masterfully invited us along for the ride, though we are seemingly always three steps behind.
The true merit of the exhibit, though, is not the sheer wealth of ground covered, not the extensive volumes of interests, images, sounds, and ideas on view; but rather the visual explanation and documentation of how an artist works. Bowie’s many personae are amply documented through photography, graphic designs, models of concert sets, visual excerpts from films, and live performances; but it is the poignant juxtaposition of these items displayed among more personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics, and some of the artist’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, which help reveal the evolution of his
creative ideas. MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling aptly commented, “the show is so much about process... it’s about how you make things. You can consistently see how [Bowie] was reinventing himself over and over.” The ability to show, behind the curtain, Bowie’s process: where he gets his ideas from and how he manifests them from imagination to reality is, for me, the real heart and success of David Bowie Is.
It is, undeniably, a spectacular exhibit. It is engaging for fans of Bowie and even for those who aren’t exactly fans, but who are intrigued by how he shaped his and our times. To illustrate this point, I attended David Bowie Is with my parents (pictured left), unsure if they know who David Bowie actually is. However, on the last day of their visit, I asked my mother what was her favorite part of her stay, and her response was “David Bowie, which I enjoyed beyond explanation.” Those two words adequately sum up both the artist and the exhibit. I think she got it perfectly.
This exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is currently on an international tour, with the MCA Chicago as the only US venue, and is open through January 4, 2015.