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David Bowie: MCA exhibit honors the pop-rock legend

Tue, Sep 30, 2014

David Bowie striped body suit on display in MCA exhibit

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design: Kansai Yamamoto. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

The focus of the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art is ostensibly one of the most famous rock stars of the last 50 years but on a deeper level, the story is about the artistic process and expression.

Bowie was born Davie Jones in 1947 south of London. At age 11, he chose to attend the nearby Bromley Tech School for Boys to study music and art. For Christmas 1961 his father bought him a white acrylic alto saxophone and by 1963 he was playing with a band known as the Kon-rads. He left the Kon-rads after 18 months, however, because of its members’ limited ambition and cover material. First he formed his own band and then, in a quest for success and the right sound, he played seven groups in five years, according to the exhibit.

In 1965, he changed his name in order to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees. He picked as his namesake Jim Bowie, the Texas pioneer who originated a double-edged knife.

In 1966-67, Bowie was still living with his parents but doing his own demo discs in his tiny bedroom, according to a Decca press release in the exhibit that called music “his work and his hobby.

“His remarkable process of observation enables him to write with humour and wit about the people, loved and unloved, and the attitude, lovely and unlovely, that constitute today’s society,” noted the press release. His music influences, according to the Decca official, included Igor Stravinsky, Vaughn Williams, Dvorak, Elgar, Holst, but also Little Richard, Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Gary McFarland, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. His choice of literature ranged from Kafka to Camus, Pinter, Behan, Waterhouse and Oscar Wilde.

Bowie says on an audiofile in the exhibit that he would have been a writer if he had not become a rock star. What we might not have realized until seeing the exhibit, however, is how hard he works at creating the entire package, from costumes to storyboards to set designs. The exhibition brings together more than 400 of these objects as well as photos, album artwork, handwritten lyrics, performance videos and original fashions.

In a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie said, “Yes, I did all the designs myself. Yes, I have to take total control. I can’t let anybody else do anything because I found that I can do things better for me.”

But Bowie knows when he’s found experts he can trust. Geoffrey Marsh, director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, who curated David Bowie Is with his V&A colleague Victoria Brookes, described how Bowie found Alexander McQueen on Savile Row when he needed a master cutter and tailor to complete his Union Jack coat for the Earthling album cover in 1997. “It looks great on a manikin and it looked great onstage, like sculpture,” Marsh said of the exhibit item.

The idea for David Bowie Is came when an unnamed American performer approached the V&A about Bowie’s archive, Marsh said. Bowie had stored 75,000 objects all over the world under an archivist’s supervision. When he loaned them to the V&A, he relinquished control, Marsh said.
Bowie’s message in the exhibit, Marsh said, is that people should be true to themselves.
“He had an ordinary background,” Marsh said during the media preview September 19. “He was not particularly poor, not particularly rich, clearly average. He want to ordinary school. I think he genuinely believed that everyone could do it if he could do it. His message is to ‘Be yourself.’ He always said, ‘Don’t copy me, be yourself sexually, artistically.’ I think that is why he is really relevant today. We live in a world now where you live in a society where you can do what you want or what the bosses tell you to do. David’s always been on the side of ‘Be yourself: find out what you want to do and do it.’ That’s why he’s a great artist.”

Bowie’s July 6, 1972, performance on the BBC of “Starman” from his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a signature event for his career and a watershed for rock music and youth culture, for example, because of the sexual androgyny of Bowie’s otherworldly spaceman. It is a highlight of the exhibit to see not only the gold/blue/red quilted spacesuit and red boots but video of the performance, with Bowie in makeup and red shaggy hair saying, “I picked on you.”

Iain R. Webb saw the performance the night before his 14th birthday. “What a gift Bowie was – all the things my life in a cosy West Country Village was not: extraordinary, exotic and exciting,” he wrote in his scrapbook, which is in the exhibit. “I spent all my waking hours documenting his every elegant move.”

Webb’s mother knitted him replicas of Bowie’s sweaters and bought him an antique fox fur. Bowie’s own mother sent him a painting of her son in 1975.

Chicago’s MCA is the only U.S. venue for David Bowie Is, largely because the museum made its request early in the two-year production of the exhibit, according to both Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn and Michael Darling, the MCA James W. Alsdorf chief curator, at the media preview. Davie Bowie Is exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art

The MCA exhibit discusses Bowie’s work in advertising and his understanding of how it shapes popular opinion. In prepared material, Darling described the artist’s need to shape all the pieces of his work, to make a Ziggy Stardust who looks like the music sounds. “This exhibition portrays an artist in control of his practice who recognizes that the smallest details contribute to the overall aesthetic experience of the audience. Bowie’s peerless understanding of the importance of image cultivation and reinvention make him a comfortable fit with others in the MCA Collection and exhibition history, such as Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol—and similar to many artists working today, he has never limited himself to one area of cultural production.”

Darling said that as curator of the MCA installation, he wanted to emphasize how Bowie had developed and then discarded various personae. He said he chose to organize the venue in chronological order so that American audiences would have a better feel for Bowie’s reinventions.

It was a sound idea, because it gives the exhibit a better sense of cultural history. We experience Major Tom in Bowie’s first hit, “Space Oddity” (1969), inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, then Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane in 1973, with Kansai Yamamoto’s wide striped bodysuit and a cloak in Japanese kanji character’s phonetically spelling out Bowie’s name as “one who spits out words in a fiery manner.”

Influenced by both George Orwell’s 1984 and the 1927 movie, Metropolis, his Diamond Dogs tour of 1974 featured a dystopian urban world populated by gangs on roller skates, ground floor gambling dens and “mealcaine.” His collaborators included lighting specialist Jules Fisher, who had worked on Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy.

The Thin White Duke persona was part of his Station to Station album in 1976, immediately before he moved to Berlin with Iggy Pop to deal with his cocaine addiction, to paint, and to find new energy. The result was the Berlin Trilogy: Law (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).

The final rooms of the exhibit feature videos of concerts from 1973 to 2004 and costumes such as the silver Pierrot worn on the cover of Scary Monsters…(and Super Creeps) and in the “Ashes to Ashes” music video (1980).

Last year Bowie produced an album, entitled The Next Day. A video of the David Bowie Is exhibit, shot on its last day at the V&A, was released September 23.

David Bowie Is events

October 5
MCA Talk: Glam Rock
When: 1-5 p.m.
Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes discuss movie-making, glam rock, and David Bowie. Haynes and Powell worked on the film Velvet Goldmine (1998). A screening of Velvet Goldmine begins at 1 p.m. Haynes and Powell begin discussion at 3:15 p.m. Tickets $10/students $6. Suggested MCA admission $12 while Bowie admission $25.

October 7
MCA Talk: The Man Who Sold Chicago
6 p.m.
Nick Fraccaro and Paul Durica of Pocket Guide to Hell present an informal lecture examining David Bowie’s many connections to Chicago, including his relationship with soul singer Ava Cherry and his involvement with Mercury Records’ publicist Ron Oberman. Free with museum admission.

October 11r 11
MCA Family Day: Dare
: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Inspired by David Bowie, families explore risk and chance with bold art activities. Free for families with children age 12 and under. Free with museum admission.

October 18-19
MCA Screen: Bowie Film Festival
1 – 11 p.m. Saturday; 12-5 p.m. Sunday. The best of David Bowie’s film appearances, from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth, along with music and interactive activities including Bowie makeup stations. Visitors are invited to dress up in Bowie-inspired attire. Tickets $10.

MCA Live: Covering Bowie Select evenings at 6 p.m. Throughout the exhibit run, Chicago musicians cover Bowie songs and albums. Thursday, October 16: Tim Kinsella covers Hunky Dory; Tuesday, November 4: ONO covers Bowie; Tuesday, December 9: The Lonesome Organist covers Bowie; Free with museum admission.

October 21 21
MCA Live: Salonathon
6 p.m.
Chicago-based underground and emerging art responds to the music, styles and shifting personas of David Bowie. Free with museum admission.

November 7
MCA Talk: Simon Critchley Panel Discussion
2 p.m.
Bowie, a new book by Simon Critchley, chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, combines personal narratives of Bowie’s life with meditations on identity while exploring Bowie’s songs. Critchley and panelists from a variety of disciplines discuss the singer’s life and music. Tickets $10.

November 8
MCA Family Day: Changes
11 a.m. -3 p.m.
Inspired by David Bowie, families explore transformation, change and different points of view. Free for families with children age 12 and under.

November 18
MCA Live: Lee Blalock, oddity
6 p.m.
Blalock invites visitors to a performance art tea party inspired by Bowie and his many personae. Visitors gather around the table for cake with performers dressed in costume singing choral renditions of Bowie songs. Free with museum admission.

By Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-in-Chief

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