David Bowie Is: A Revelatory Look Into An Artist's Process

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 22, 2014 6:00PM

David Bowie has repeatedly tried to lay his past to rest: killing off Ziggy Stardust; abandoning the Diamond Dogs stage concept halfway through that tour; disposing of character after character while hopping between various musical genres; and ultimately attempting to retire his entire catalog after a 1990 tour. With the David Bowie is exhibit, he may have finally accomplished the act of the ultimate farewell tour. This exhibit—opening at The Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago in Chicago Sept. 23, its only U.S. stop—is not so much a celebration of The Thin White Duke as it is a clearing of his attic.

It's telling that Bowie himself hasn't had any involvement with the exhibition or officially visited it at all. His absence, and the full cooperation of his archival team, means that Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh—the original curators of the exhibit when it debuted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (and adapted for Chicago by Michael Darling)—were able to create a story unsullied by any attempts at direction from the man they attempt to reveal. But I think it shows that Bowie truly does work in the moment, always looking to the future, so the idea of restructuring some sort of narrative around his past is probably more a confusing chore for him that a welcome voyage of discovery.

While it would have been easy to base the entire show around Bowie's musical output and the different visual styles he adopted along the way, it aims to go much deeper and examine his actual artistic process, revealing a multilayered approach to the man's output through the last 50 years. Many view Bowie as a musician who dabbles in art, but David Bowie Is shows a man who develops his ideas through multiple artistic mediums in the effort to achieve his final results, the most common being his music. This is truly revelatory, but can also be viewed as the show's greatest weakness as it attempts to draw in the general public.

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Installation view, David Bowie Is, MCA Chicago. September 23, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Photo: Nathan Keay, © The David Bowie Archive. Courtesy of the MCA Chicago.
We would venture a guess that most people going to the show have the expectation of this simply being a retrospective; a history lesson covering his various guises. But while the exhibit is loosely constructed chronologically, its actual through-line for the best experience is thematic. This means the casual fan may at first be disappointed or confused since much of the archival pieces they would expect, primarily Bowie's broad array of costumes and props, are the flash in the show. But one also quickly realizes those pieces are probably the most superficial components. The true meat of the exhibit is the pieces of lyrics; the sketching of actual ideas, at times going so far as unreleased screenplays and storyboards for musical projects, provide the deepest impact. Bowie the chameleon seems otherworldly, but Bowie the artist feels not only approachable, but feels like an entryway to inspiring others to follow in his path. By literally exposing the connective tissue between the songs and videos and other final pieces, we see that while Bowie is inarguably an artistic genius; he too has a process and this provides an inroad for others who might want to follow in his path.

By diving deep into David Bowie is, one extrudes a biography of the man that has previously never quite been captured in book or film. But it's not a narrative that simply leaps out at you. It's one that insists you submerge yourself in the exhibit and abandon preconceptions of simply undergoing a history lesson. This is helped since attendees are outfitted with a pair of headphones complete with an immersive sound experience by Sennheiser that is triggered based on your location in the exhibit. As you pass by various video installations, the sound syncs up with the visuals. In other areas of the exhibit, in whispered corners come snippets of interviews with Bowie or his collaborators. This has the dual effect of almost continuously enveloping you in sound as you wander from room to room while separating you from others taking in the exhibit. This makes the interaction with each piece a truly individual one. It's just you and another person's artistic journey, which means when you emerge from the other end the rush of sound and light around you makes you feel that for the past hour or so you've been in an alien environment.

David Bowie Is exceeded my expectations, delivering a much richer experience than expected, but I understand that also might make it daunting at first for others. I urge you to enter sans preconceptions and give yourself over to the journey in the hopes that you too emerge inspired by the depth of of what's on display instead of simply sated by the most easily digestible "greatest hits."

The MCA presents David Bowie Is from Sept. 23, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015 and tickets are $25