‘David Bowie Is’ Provides a Revealing Look at the Artist’s Many Personas

Althea Legaspi

By Althea Legaspi

on 09.23.14 in News

The David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which opens today and runs through January 4, 2015, is a collection of more than 400 artifacts from Bowie‘s vast private archive centered around his penchant for reinvention. Unfolding mostly chronologically, the exhibit’s first room focuses on Bowie’s early years when he was still David Robert Jones, leading an average life in a London suburb. Even then, glimpses of his future persona were beginning to emerge. For his early bands, the Kon-rads, the Delta Lemons, and Dave and the Bowmen, Bowie sketched out fully realized concepts, from the staging to the outfits that were to be worn. One drawing depicts two different views of sketched pants with fringe at the bottom, a single pointed loafer and a sketch of a man in a red and black bomber-styled jacket. A photo from the period features Jones perfectly posed for the camera; as a teenager the Bowie identity was already in development.

One of the first multimedia displays is dedicated to Bowie’s first big hit, “Space Oddity.” While the song plays, viewers hear interview clips along with his music through Sennheiser headphones; guidePORT receivers sync audio in accordance to what’s being viewed, further connecting the viewer with the various videos, scenes and displays around the museum. A 3-D audio simulation enhances the end of the exhibit, where mono and stereo material comes together through several hidden speakers.

But the biggest revelations are found in the minutiae, where Bowie’s creative process becomes more apparent. Handwritten lyrics on pink, blue and white sheets of paper show lines crossed out and rewritten, Bowie — and his future incarnations — feel more relatable when viewing those simple edits. His insatiable need for change resulted in a number of writing techniques, among them a computer software creation called the Verbasizer, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards, and cut-out lyrics inspired by William S. Burroughs.

Bowie’s meticulous approach extends into the visual realm as well. Detailed storyboards for Hunger City, a never-produced film Bowie conceptualized after his proposal to make George Orwell’s 1984 into a musical was rejected by Orwell’s widow, led to the creation of his Diamond Dogs tour. Alongside the storyboards is a scale model of the set for the stage, and a multimedia video pieces together Bowie’s drawings, providing animation of his vision. Colorful, squiggly ink lines of character’s faces and detailed scenes dance as Bowie’s descriptions appear as captions through the video.

One of the more striking features of the exhibit is a mirrored 3-D display of Bowie’s Freddie Burretti-designed Ziggy Stardust suit, worn during his landmark appearance on the tastemaking Top Of The Pops in 1972. The quilted, colorful suit hangs on one of the many mannequins that had to be commissioned for the exhibit — Bowie’s 26-inch waist is not a standard mannequin size — and stands onstage while Ziggy’s “Starman” performance plays on the mirrored background. Ziggy exudes a confident cool, strutting the stage and casually throwing his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson. It’s a dramatic, bigger-than-life gesture, and if one is standing in the right spot, it’s as if Bowie is pointing at and singing to you.

While the exhibit has its dazzling moments, it does sometimes want for context. In the accompanying David Bowie Is documentary, which hits U.S. movie theaters in conjunction with the exhibit’s official Tuesday opening, a male fan who was filmed while visiting London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where the exhibit first ran, comments about how subversive, shocking and radical it was to see a man put his arm around another man in 1972. While the footage itself is compelling, its cultural impact could have been better emphasized within the exhibit the way it was in the documentary.

Even those that know little about Bowie can glean useful insight into the impact his art has made culturally across multiple mediums. The clothing alone, including highlights from Alexander McQueen and Kansai Yamamoto, should make fashionistas salivate. A room highlighting his Berlin period boasts Bowie’s paintings of roommate Iggy Pop; another highlights Bowie’s film accomplishments. A mock recording studio plays fly-on-the-wall snippets of conversation. Photos of Bowie’s influences adorn walls. Some items are excessive — a cocaine spoon is on display — and yet David Bowie Is is not the complete picture. It can be too much, or not enough, depending on the viewer’s vantage point. The intro audio says it takes 90 minutes to complete the exhibit, but even two hours was not enough time to take everything in. While it’s vital to hear Bowie’s music and his own words through the provided headphones, the audio would have been enhanced by the addition of narrated context and clearer introductions to each of the exhibit’s sections.

The final room recreates the live concert experience, and floor-to-ceiling screens roll iconic footage spanning his career. To walk from one end of the room to the other takes you from one era of Bowie to the next. It culminates with Bowie announcing Stardust’s final show in 1973. There are dizzying crowd shots, closeups of fans’ joyful tears, and Ziggy singing his erstwhile farewell, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Like all great performers, he leaves the crowd wanting more, but his fans didn’t know how many David Bowies were yet to come. David Bowie is, and has always been, what he wants us to see. David Bowie Is offers a tantalizing peek behind his cultivated mystique.