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‘David Bowie Is’ at the MCA

| Sunday, September 28, 2014

web_david bowieSara Shoemake
“David Bowie Is” in a word … Revolutionary? Multi-talented? Avant-garde?

No one description can suffice, and the internationally-touring retrospective with the evocative title leaves the sentence to be finished in any number of combinations. The exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last Tuesday, makes no attempt to establish just one description of the legendary artist and performer. From his music career to his acting career, dabbling in the visual arts, fashion and set design throughout, the eternally recognizable Bowie has pervaded pop culture since he first attained commercial success as a musician in the 1960s and has established his name as a cultural entity — never vague, yet never completely defined. He’s been at it for over 50 years and is truly unique enough to demand an exhibition of this magnitude.

Over 300 objects as diverse as notebooks full of handwritten lyrics to many of Bowie’s greatest hits, original costume designs coming from collaborations with designers such as Kansai Yamamoto, Thierry Mugler and Alexander McQueen, photographs and album artwork and rare performance footage ranging from his various tours to an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990s all give insight into the world of David Bowie.

The design and layout of the exhibit design reflect Bowie’s diverse career and various personas — multi-sensory and disorganized yet revelatory. The combination of music and visuals pays homage to Bowie’s range of accomplishments and talents. Paintings, wallpaper designs, a lyric-writing computer program, set design sketches, notebooks full of lyrics and random thoughts are all on display, giving visitors a rare view inside the creative genius of the man behind Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom.

Visitors are given headsets that stream Bowie’s music and snippets from interviews corresponding to their location in the exhibit. As one approaches a mirrored alcove with the costume Bowie wore while performing “Starman” on “Top of the Pops,” a video from the performance plays in the background while the audio plays through the headset. While creating a very individual experience, the technology doesn’t function seamlessly. At times, you pick up the audio stream from the next room, creating a somewhat disjointed experience.

The exhibit distinctively paints David Bowie as a persona quite separate from the man David Jones himself. The exhibition gives little hint to the origins of his stage name and makes no reference to the fact that he is, indeed, still alive and recording music. This “David Bowie Is” not living life as husband to retired supermodel Iman and father to sci-fi filmmaker Duncan Jones. Perhaps this was intentional, taking visitors further into the fantasy and outlandish nature of Bowie’s world and rejecting any portrayal of him as typical or real. To some visitors, this may come across as a bit dismissive. For example, no mention is made of Bowie’s 2013 comeback album, “The Next Day.” The lack of references to some of these things makes the exhibition almost feel incomplete, but it certainly gives an air of wonder.

Coming from a five-month run at the Victoria & Albert Museum in Bowie’s homeland, England, David Bowie Is crossing borders now on its only U.S. stop before it later heads to Paris and Melbourne.  “David Bowie Is” will be on display in Chicago until Jan. 4, 2015, giving students a number of opportunities to take the short trip into the city for a visit. Tickets are $25 and include entrance to the rest of the museum. For just $5 more, the museum offers a student membership. Good for a year, the membership includes free admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as two free guest passes and one free ticket to “David Bowie Is.”

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