MCA’s ‘David Bowie Is’ … finally here

SHARE MCA’s ‘David Bowie Is’ … finally here
SHARE MCA’s ‘David Bowie Is’ … finally here

ABOVE: Installation view,”David Bowie is,” Art Gallery of Ontario, September 25 – November 29, 2013. © The David Bowie Archive. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Among the stories out of New York during the recent Fashion Week extravaganza was one about the couture model, Andrej (or Andreja) Pejic, the 23-year-old who has enjoyed great success on both sides of the catwalk, easily parading down the runways of male and female shows alike.

Having just paged through the monumental catalogue for “David Bowie Is,” the highly anticipated exhibit devised by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and now on a world tour whose only announced U.S. stop is at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Sept. 23,2014-Jan. 4, 2015), I had just one thought: Pejic owes a serious debt to Bowie, the musician, actor, dancer, designer, arranger and producer who paved the way.

From the very start of his career in the early 1970s — whether decked out in London Mod-wear, mesh leotards, kimonos, platform shoes, glistening evening gowns or classic trench coats — Bowie was busy crossing the gender line. In both real life and on stage, he created personae, from the glittery Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane (“a lad insane”) to the alienated “lodger” of his Berlin years, continually playing off his svelte, androgynous beauty. And much of the rest of his art followed suit. Of course his talent and intelligence went far beyond the whole matter of gender-bending as he experimented with everything from commedia dell’arte theatrics to techno-pop music.

Bowie, the golden boy who is now 67,has been a central figure in the pop culture universe of his time. Yet the question can still be asked: Was he an “originating force,” or more of a brilliant Zelig-like figure who, over the course of many decades, possessed an uncanny “sense of the moment,” and was ingenious and creative enough to run with what was already happening?

For Victoria Broackes, who co-curated the Bowie show at the Victoria and Albert, he is a bit of both.

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“We even created a heading in the London exhibition,’David Bowie is… Plagiarism or Revolution’,” said Broackes. “Hisenergy in seeking out new ideas, and his skill in filtering them to find exactly what he needed, and the right people to create them with, is a major contributor to his success. This exhibition explores Bowie’s application of existing cultural and artistic forms, and traces the creation of his own.He takes influence spanning German Expressionism, Surrealism, Theatre of Cruelty, film, literature, French chanson and modern dance, and by absorbing ideas from the world around him, and introducing them in his own innovative way to a very large number of people, he has had a huge and originating impact.”

The Bowie influence has been pervasive in the worlds of music, fashion, film, the visual arts and beyond — from Andy Warhol and photographer Cindy Sherman, to the avant-garde Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto and the late couture fantasist, Alexander McQueen. And what other pop singer can make the claim that one of his most enchanting songs, “Space Oddity,” was beamed down to Earth by a genuine astronaut? (Chris Hadfield did just that in 2013, while serving as commander of NASA’s International Space Station.)

DAVID BOWIE IS When: Sept. 23, 2014- Jan. 4, 2015 Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Tickets: $25 Info: (312) 280-2660; http://www.mcachicago.org

The “David Bowie Is ” exhibition, which will consume the entire fourth floor ofthe Museum of Contemporary Art, focuses on the artist’s creative processes and his collaborative work with artists and designers, and suggests just how pervasive his influence has been in many fields. Almost all the material in the show — nearly 400 objects, including photography, album artwork, original fashions, set designs, musical instruments, classic cigarette packs, never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics, childhood memorabilia, sketches, costumes and rare performance material from the past five decades — was drawn from Bowie’s own extensive archive. That cache includes 75,000 objects — itself a suggestion that the artist has long had a sense of his own legacy.

The exhibit’s multimedia design introduces advanced sound technology by Sennheiser, and video installations that help create an immersive journey through Bowie‘s artistic life. In fact, from the moment you pick up your headset at the entrance to the show you will be in the presence of wall and floor sensors that will pick up on where you are focusing. In addition, throughout the run of the exhibition, the MCA will present music, theater and dance programs that riff on the Bowie influence.

“We’ve given the exhibition a bit more of a chronological structure than it had in London,” said Michael Darling,the MCA’s James W. Alsdorf chief curator, who was instrumental inbringing the show to Chicago. “And you can see how Bowie was active in each of the scenes that flowered over the decades, and how he inserted himself into that flowering, always collaborating with others who also were looking for the next border to cross. This is what enabled him to survive and remain relevant for so many years. There is nothing nostalgic about his work. He brought a real intellectual and philosophical grounding to what he did,constantly thinking about where we are as humans in the universe, and our role in society. His songs were never just sugary pop, and that remains the case until today.”

Music has been the constant for Bowie (who declined all requests for interviews related to the Chicago exhibition). But according to Darling, he was, from the start,a cultural sponge who “read lots of books (check out his list of 100must-read volumes on the Internet), went to galleries and museums, knew where all the hot-spots were.”

“He was a working class youth who engaged with the 1960s scene in London, although when The Beatles and Rolling Stones hit big he was still struggling, and working his way through pastiches of American rock and roll,” said Darling. “He didn’t achieve instant fame, and he cycled through many bands and the whole psychedelic world, and from the beginning cultivated many voices. It was that Warholian idea of always being on stage, always morphing,visually reinventing himself. But he also probed manyof the currents of his time, from Buddhism, to the dystopian sci-fi novels of J.G. Ballard and the work of William Burroughs. And he was a true pioneer in the world of music videos. Of course he also did not escape the drug culture, and the exhibition talks about the cocaine addiction that began controlling his life in the mid to late 1970s.”

For Petra Slinkard, curator of costumes with the Chicago History Museum, and a consultant on the Bowie exhibition, the big questions about him are these: “Were all his different personae liberating or inhibiting to him? Did he hide behind them, or was it his truest form of expression? And has he now reached the point where he has no more need for transformation of the self through physical appearance? To be sure all these experiments have had an enduring influence — on everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga. And when it comes to what is masculine and feminine in the 21st century, you have to say he blazed that trail.”

The final section of “David Bowie Is” is an immersive audio-visual space that presents dramatic projections of some of Bowie‘s most ambitious music videos, as well as recently uncovered footage of Bowie performing “Jean Genie” on “Top of the Pops” in 1973, and D.A. Pennebaker’s film “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture” (1973). A separate screening room shows excerpts and props from Bowie‘s feature films, such as “Labyrinth” (1986) and “Basquiat” (1996), in which he played Warhol.

For the V & A’s Broackes, “Bowie stands out not just for reinvention — his music changes but it is always unmistakeably Bowie — but also for the breadth of vision, and the hard work and creativity that goes into making that possible. He has an uncanny ability to define what is and will be popular. But he refuses to settle for a winning formula. And I would add that his way of bringing out last year’s single ‘Where Are We Now” — launching it by night, with no fanfare, to an unsuspecting world — was marketing genius. Another part of his impact rests with us, the audience, and some intangible connection that we make with the man and his music.”

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