David Bowie is—the new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago—features advanced sound technology by Sennheiser, 400 objects from the David Bowie Archive, and one elephant in the room: “Why is an art museum showcasing the music and wardrobe of a post-punk, alternative rocker?”
The question proves even more valid considering Chicago’s MCA is the only US stop for the $2 million show that’s gone global since its start at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last year. Certainly, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York seem a better match.
Michael Darling, the MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator who scored a home run for the museum, city and state by securing the massive exhibition justifies its placement by explaining, “The MCA’s history has been built on a multidisciplinary understanding of creativity from its founding in 1967, and the combination of exhibitions, performances, and programs we present today reflect that wide-angle view of contemporary art.”
Of course, one look at the Scary Monsters…(and Super Creeps) album cover which combines Brian Duffy’s photography with a painting by Edward Bell; Terry O’Neill’s photograph promoting Diamond Dogs; and The Archer by John Rowlands confirms the show’s artistic merit. The collection also includes a graceful self-portrait Bowie etched for Heroes and dynamic wallpaper he designed for Laura Ashley.
Alas some of the musician’s other renderings, namely paintings and sketches, are not on par with his recordings and performances. In this sense the David Bowie Archive reads a bit like a resume where a summer internship is listed alongside running a Fortune 500 company for half a century. In other words, the show could benefit from a discerning edit.
While it’s a perk to see rare footage including Bowie in the title role of The Elephant Man (which he launched at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre in 1979), there’s no need to add clips from mediocre movies such as Absolute Beginners, Labyrinth, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in lieu of his finer films and more memorable television appearances. Also absent are photos and videos documenting the personal life of David Bowie (aka David Jones). However, this omission is welcome since it strengthens the integrity of the exhibition as it focuses on the man’s work rather than his celebrity.
Among the show’s standout pieces are Kansai Yamamoto’s costumes for 1973’s Aladdin Sane tour; the helmet Julian Schnabel made for Bowie (playing Andy Warhol) in 1996’s Basquiat; and Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack coat designed by Bowie for 1997’s Earthling.
In addition, the museum successfully creates sections where guests can experience the relationship between rock star and fan—from nostalgically flipping through album covers within the context of how this lost art was initially viewed to standing in an arena-like setting where Bowie’s wardrobe takes center stage as his concert footage is projected onto adjacent walls. Thanks to Sennheiser (and headphones), attendees can enjoy both sound and vision as they walk from station to station throughout the multi-media exhibition.
David Bowie is targets music lovers, the fashion-forward, art appreciators, and most anyone looking for a unique museum adventure. No doubt, landing an exclusive of this magnitude will put a feather in Darling’s curatorial cap and a smile on Chicagoans’ faces. It’s already pleased Mayor Rahm Emanuel so much, he’s deemed September 23 as David Bowie Day—making Bowie an official hero just for one day.
The exhibition runs from September 23, 2014 to January 4, 2015 at the MCA on 220 E. Chicago Avenue. Tickets ($25) include general admission to the museum. For more information, visit www.mcachicago.org.