CHICAGO — This is not really a review of the exhibition David Bowie Is.
It’s more a story of a childhood crush, an occasionally dazzling retrospective of a great musician’s life, and the weird rationale of the contemporary art museum.
Maybe you don’t like David Bowie, because his music left you cold, or you rolled your eyes at his repeated attempts at “acting,” or you think he’s just another aging rocker who makes people over fifty go misty eyed with nostalgia. I can’t say I’ve listened to much of Bowie’s music from the last 15 or 20 years, but in the early seventies, when I was a little kid and just waking up to the transformative power of pop music, David Bowie absolutely blew my mind, man. I can still recall his appearance on the British pop music show Top of the Pops in 1972, when he sang Starman dressed in a way that broke all the conventions of male fashion at the time. He was singing about a being from another planet, but he was also singing about himself, and offering a vision of strange glamor and beauty and other-ness that represented an escape from the drab, poverty-stricken surroundings of this northern English pre-teenager.
In the succeeding decades, the name Bowie has become synonymous for a musical artist who transformed his act every few years — the sound, the style of clothes, even the persona of the performer. An exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, attempts to document those changes by displaying material from five decades of performing, from the early sixties to today. In each room the visitor sees all kinds of memorabilia on the walls (photos, tour posters, Bowie’s drawings, drafts of song lyrics). There are the costumes, designed by some great names from the fashion world, including that gaudy padded jump suit worn for Starman, the Aladdin Sane kimono, the Pierrot outfit from the Ashes to Ashes video, and so on. The real coup is in the archived film and video footage. Some of it is presented on wall mounted monitors, but many rooms have these specially constructed stages which have front and back projections of TV and live appearances. Every visitor is given a personal set of Sennheiser earphones attached to a device that hangs around the neck, which relays the sound directly into your ears from one of these stage sets when you’re facing it or nearby. Watching the film of Bowie performing Life on Mars in an ice-blue suit and giant rings of blue make-up round his eyes, and hearing the song in crisp detail over the Sennheiser earphones, I confess I was transported back to 1973 in an almost out of body experience.
Yet in the end, I regret to say that I do have some problems with the show as a whole. When not listening to the music, it’s often difficult to see what case the show is making for Bowie as a figure of cultural significance beyond the fact that he made some brilliant songs and was a fantastically entertaining performer. Having heard the curator Michael Darling interviewed on local radio, I know the claims that are being made for this show in terms of how Bowie changed the worlds of fashion and set design as well as music. I just don’t think that this exhibition proves the case. There are too many rooms, basically, and too much stuff that’s presented as if we know the story already and we’re pre-disposed to loving it. Frankly, there’s a lot of filler.
I am also puzzled as to why this is in a contemporary art museum at all. The show originated in the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, which makes more sense as the V&A has always been about the history of fashion and design. I can’t help feeling that it’s mainly a money spinner for the MCA, and at $25 a ticket and with so many people flocking to the show, I’m sure that David Bowie Is … will fulfill that purpose handsomely. The MCA could point to the Punk show at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, or the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and say that they are merely following a trend. What troubles me is that these kinds of shows stretch the definition of contemporary art too far, and take away exhibiting time from younger-living-breathing contemporary artists (whether a painter or a performance artist).
So if you love David Bowie’s music and you live in the Midwest, you’ll almost certainly enjoy something in this show. If you’re lukewarm or merely Bowie-curious, I suggest you spend the money instead on a David Bowie greatest hits collection. David Bowie’s music is what he’s really all about, in the end, and you don’t need an art museum to tell you that.
David Bowie Is continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago) through January 5.