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David Bowie Is… Unexpected

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Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Hosts Blockbuster Exhibition

Self portrait in pose also adopted for the album cover of “Heroes,” 1978. David Bowie. © The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image © V&A Images.

Self portrait in pose also adopted for the album cover of “Heroes,” 1978. David Bowie. © The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image © V&A Images.

We can all exhale now — David Bowie Is finally opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and showcasing nearly 400 objects from the inimitable icon’s personal archive, the exhibition has been the fodder of Chicago art world gossip for the better part of a year. Many began lighting the torches and readying the pitchforks immediately after the MCA announced the show.

“He has no place in a visual art venue!” curators yelled. “A greedy moneymaking scheme if I’ve ever heard of one!” gallerists cried. “Nothing but a wanton fête of celebrity and the sure harbinger of the end of times!” stalwart critics shrieked.

Whether or not David Bowie is an adequate subject for a contemporary art exhibition has been the real bone of contention among the art community. The line between fine art and pop culture is a complicated one, no thanks to Andy Warhol. Moreover, the MCA never promoted David Bowie Is as an exhibition of an “artist” (at least not a visual artist) in the traditional sense of the word. Even the show’s title is vague as to who DavidBowie is as a cultural figure.

It is the attention to the performer’s shrewd sense of character cultivation and exacting collaboration with countless artists and designers that really posits the exhibition as art museum-worthy. The objects on view include everything from hand-drawn band posters from back when David Bowie was still Davy Jones, to perfectly poised Terry O’Neill promotional photographs for the Diamond Dogs tour.

The real strength of the show is the location-based headphone sound system. An ongoing stream of commentary, interview clips and, of course, music wafts through the individual headsets, immersing you in an intimate Bowie microcosm that corresponds with whatever you’re looking at as you meander through the exhibition. Occasionally the sound doesn’t sync quite right — you may hear something that you’ve already read in the wall text somewhere else in the room, or perhaps find yourself watching a video in dead silence for 30 seconds. While this can be disconcerting, it’s also wonderfully surprising and strangely poetic, as if you are in some kind of labyrinthine dreamscape.

Furthering this sense of fantasy is the atypical low light and dark walls of the gallery space. The murkiness is partly pragmatic — it allows the numerous video features of the show to shine. Yet it also makes you feel more dependent on the audio tour for guidance as you lose track of peripheral objects and fellow visitors in the shadows.

The exhibition culminates in an all-encompassing, sensory-saturating audio-visual space, replete with a floor-to-ceiling video montage spanning three walls, Alexander McQueen-designed stage costumes on towering pedestals and the transcendent reverberation of the singer’s amplified greatest hits. A veritable church of Bowie.

It’s true that the MCA is charging over double the standard admission price ($25 versus the $12 for adults). This is the pettiest of grievances — museums have been marking up specialty exhibition tickets for years now. Everyone always complains, and most will go anyway. Just as a pithy point of comparison, it’s 23 bucks to visit the Art Institute of Chicago any old day.

According to a pre-Recession study by the Getty Leadership Institute, ticket sales account for a mere 12 to 15% of an average museum’s annual revenue. Overhead on an exhibition as big and shiny as David Bowie Is certainly isn’t going to be cheap, and the increased admission rate will likely cover the added insurance costs and a few headphone kiosk workers’ wages. If you don’t have Bowie fever, you can see the rest of the museum for $7 during the run of the show.

The ticket price hike makes it easy to lambast the exhibition as nothing but a racket designed to lure in an unsuspecting public nostalgic for the days of Ziggy Stardust. What is probably more suspect as a swindle is the movie about the exhibition that the V&A produced, which was also released on September 23 to just 100 theaters for one-night-only screenings. Yet, according to Geoffrey Marsh, V&A co-curator of David Bowie Is, the show isn’t a fatuous retrospective of the performer’s celebrity arc.

Truthfully, it’s the inadvertent PR that has set the exhibition up as celebrity fetishism. When the MCA originally announced its intention to host the show, many assumed it wouldn’t be — nay, couldn’t be — anything but a zealous exaltation of Bowie’s unparalleled stardom. Understandably skeptical tongues wagged eagerly, as evidenced in James Yood’s Visual Arts Source article about the show that ran in March.

There continues to be as much positive word-of-mouth press as negative. Perhaps the most blatant (and confusing) third-party promotion of the exhibition came from Rahm Emanuel, when he issued an official mayoral proclamation that September 23, 2014, would be forevermore known as “David Bowie Day” in Chicago. While this is certainly a nice gesture on behalf of the city, it inflates the notion of spectacle for which the critics have already impugned the MCA.

What the mayor’s proclamation did get right, however, is that “Chicago’s own Museum of Contemporary Art stands primed to host and present the first international exhibition of David Bowie Is.” Regardless of whether or not you accept David Bowie as an “artist,” other contemporary artists continue to use new media and technology, confounding traditional modes of consumption, interpretation and display. As a well-executed, multimedia-intensive exhibition, David Bowie Is represents a critical exploration of artistic intertextuality and contemporary curation. Given the nature of the institution, this investigation is the purview — if not the responsibility — of the MCA.

While the subject of the exhibition may be about someone famous, it’s more about how he came to fame, and maybe even why. David Bowie Is is an exploration of identity, creativity and postmodern culture as whole, of which we are all a part. To criticize the show as mere pandering to a celebrity-obsessed public is to admit one’s own obsolescence in the field of cultural production.

One Response to David Bowie Is… Unexpected

  1. […] of classical composer, Philip Glass. In September 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a David Bowie retrospective detailing his influences on “art, design, theater, and contemporary culture,” and his work with […]

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