ABOVE: One of the many gallery installations comprising “David Bowie Is” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. | KEVIN NANCE PHOTO
BY KEVIN NANCE | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Let’s not go crazy here. David Bowie is nowhere near the most important Britpop star of the 20th century. It’s hard to think of a single track he ever recorded that approaches the genius of, say, any of the best couple dozen John Lennon or Paul McCartney tunes. As a performer, he got decent mileage out of the contrast between his big voice and his reedy figure, but Mick Jagger thrashed him in that department. He lacked the easygoing populism of Elton John and the sheer lung power of George Michael. He was beautiful in an androgynous, ethereal way, but oddly asexual. And his stylized, occasionally spastic dancing probably had more influence on Rick Astley than on the culture at large.
But “David Bowie Is,” the massive and massively entertaining multimedia exhibition that opens to the public on Tuesday at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, makes a persuasive case for Bowie as the century’s brainiest, most self-aware and most wildly theatrical showman. Inspired by literature (he was obsessed for decades with “1984” by George Orwell), movies (Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” were touchstones), modern and contemporary art, avant-garde fashion, Japanese pop culture and especially theater from Kabuki and mime to Brecht and Weimar-era cabaret, Bowie turned his stage shows into wittily referential, highly conceptual dramas in which the visual was equal if not superior to the aural.
The central feature of this onslaught, as “David Bowie Is” constantly reinforces with a parade of 26-inch-waisted, mask-wearing mannequins modeling the star’s extravagant stage costumes, was Bowie’s unchallenged primacy as pop music’s most original and relentless chameleon. Emerging from an era when rock music was all about being (or at least seeming) authentic, Bowie ushered in an orgy of artifice, trying on — and often abruptly dropping — a succession of personae from the space tourist Major Tom and the alien glam-rock god Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. As a pop-cultural trope, reinvention was invented by David Bowie.
‘David Bowie Is’ Highly Recommended When: Sept. 23 through Jan. 4, 2015 Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Tickets: $25 (includes general admission) Info: mcachicago.org
And as pointed out during a preview discussion between curators from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where this touring exhibit originated, and the MCA — the show’s only American venue — we learn very little here about the real David Bowie, born in London in 1947 as David Robert Jones. In the the most important sense, in fact, “David Bowie” is a fictional character. We do get glimpses of the man behind the curtain — as a famous recluse scrapping a cocaine-addicted life in Los Angeles for a period of personal and artistic rejuvenation in Berlin in the late ’70s, for example. But more often he’s behind the scenes, a controlling mastermind pulling the levers of a career built on a series of dazzling mirages that disappeared when you got too close.
While he sometimes designed his over-the-top stage costumes, makeup and hair styling himself, more often Bowie collaborated with the brilliant likes of Freddie Buretti, who executed Ziggy Stardust’s Technicolor suit and boots in 1972; the makeup artist Pierre Laroche and fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, who created the lightning-bolt face painting and the sculptural bodysuits, respectively, for the “Aladdin Sane” album cover and tour of 1973; and Alexander McQueen, who made the Union Jack frock coat Bowie wore on the “Earthling” album cover in 1997.
These and about 400 other pieces from the star’s carefully preserved archive and a few items on loan from other sources — including a wad of lipstick-blotted tissue paper from 1974 and his smirking mugshot from his 1976 arrest for marijuana possession in Rochester, N.Y., not to mention scribbled notes and lyrics, stage-set models, interview clips, music videos and snippets of performances, including a weirdly arresting 1979 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” — make “David Bowie Is” a must-see motherlode of a show for Bowie fans and anyone else with an interest in the nuts and bolts of 20th-century mythmaking. (The show also includes artifacts from his work as an accomplished painter and actor; to date, Bowie has performed in more than 20 movies, and Chicago and Broadway runs of “The Elephant Man.”)
And as is only fitting for the pop icon most committed to the McLuhanesque dictum that the medium is the message, “David Bowie Is” easily earns a gold star as the most technologically advanced audiovisual exhibit in memory. As you move through the show’s 25 different display zones, your Sennheiser headphones immerse you in a dynamic soundscape of music and interviews corresponding to the eye-popping visuals (including two vast galleries with giant digital displays) in your immediate vicinity. It’s not often that you see museum-goers bobbing their heads and occasionally busting a move, but that’s what happens in “David Bowie Is.” Let’s dance.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and critic. Twitter: @KevinNance1.