Sunday, October 19, 2014

David Bowie Is...a Fascinating, Revelatory Fusion of Sound & Vision -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

David Bowie Is
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thru January 4, 2015

David Bowie is an artistic genius.

This was well-established for me before I became a teenager, probably first from hearing "Space Oddity," though obviously well after its 1969 release--I was born just the year before--or even its mid-70s re-releases.

In the late '70s, "Changes," "Rebel Rebel" and "Suffragette City" were still also FM radio staples, and at some point I bought the ChangesOneBowie greatest hits LP.

When "Let's Dance"--the song, album, video, etc.--exploded in 1983, I was still only 14, but I really wanted to attend Bowie's Serious Moonlight Tour in Chicago (but was left out despite a friend going).

So I've never known of David Bowie and not been a considerable fan.

Note: No photography is allowed in the exhibit;
pictures here are from the V&A Museum website
and may not depict exact items or layouts in Chicago
But even in finally seeing him live in 1990--at Dodger Stadium--on the Sound & Vision Tour that was to represent the end of him playing his greatest hits, I primarily knew his most popular songs, the Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars and Let's Dance albums and his reputation for being a creative chameleon, vis-à-vis the Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Thin White Duke characters.

It probably wasn't until Bowie played three shows at the Rosemont Theatre in January 2004--I attended two of them, plus one in Milwaukee a few months later--that I really did a deep dive that raised my appreciation to a far greater level.

From the brilliance of early albums like The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and, of course, Ziggy Stardust, to the epic slow-burn track that is "Station to Station" and the album named for it, to his staggering German period that produced Low, Heroes and Lodger, it's quite possible that simply from a musical standpoint no one had a more consistently and comprehensively remarkable '70s (with apologies to Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan and others who were sensational throughout the decade).

And I've liked all the albums Bowie has released in this millennium, including 2013's rather surprising--after years of his being completely silent--The Next Day.

But what I loved most about David Bowie Is, the extensive exhibition on Bowie now running at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art--it was organized by the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London, where I saw it last year as well--is how it augments what I already knew and loved about its subject in ways that substantially amplify my appreciation of just what a genius David Bowie Is.

Most acutely--though reiterated through numerous artifacts (most from Bowie's own archives) across several galleries--the exhibit does this by illustrating how thoroughly he has provided or overseen the creative direction for every aspect of his career and multiple personas.

Even when he was 16 and in a band called the Kon-rads, Bowie (then still David Jones) was creating stage-set designs and paying close attention to fashion.

And from his unique stagewear to album covers to tour themes to music videos and more, nothing about Bowie's one-of-a-kind imagery happened outside his control.

Yes, he collaborated with highly innovative fashion designers such as Kansai Yamamoto, Ola Hudson (incidentally the mother of Slash from Guns 'n Roses), Mark Ravitz and Alexander McQueen, as well as musical compatriots like Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, but Bowie was seemingly completely on top of everything.

And even more compelling to me than its insights into his collaborators is the way David Bowie Is showcases the artist's vast influences.

This is personally heartening because--as this blog hopefully somewhat conveys--I think cultural literacy is vitally important for myriad reasons (not the least being emotional sustenance) and rue that between the here-and-now superfluous nature of the digital age and scholastic de-emphasizing of humanities and arts curriculum, art forms from painting to jazz to poetry to theater to classic cinema to classical music, etc., etc., etc., are being digested by the masses and especially the young less and great detriment.

For as the exhibit makes clear, David Bowie didn't just wake up and become David Bowie.

Not too surprisingly, especially given that they incidentally share January 8 as their birthdays, Elvis Presley helped inspire the young Londoner's musical bent.

But just as much, to my enlightenment, so did Little Richard.

Then there was the inspiration provided by teachers who further fueled Bowie's artistic curiosity--most notably Owen Frampton, who, in just one of the nifty coincidences the exhibition reveals, is the father of Peter Frampton. The latter's early band, Humble Pie, was one that David Bowie opened for while a fledgling performer in the late '60s.

But beyond the several names I've already mentioned, rather conspicuous to those who take the time to read most of the exhibit's text are myriad influences from the fairly obvious--the Beatles, Andy Warhol--to a host of others, some well beyond my familiarity.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Bill Haley, Jimi Hendrix, Stanley Kubrick--Bowie saw 2001: A Space Odyssey several times before writing "Space Oddity" and was highly influenced by A Clockwork Orange--J.G. Ballard, Frank Sinatra, Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Erich Heckel, Bertold Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, the musicals Oliver and Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood, Philip Glass and Jim Henson are just some of the people and works cited as influencing (or intersecting with) Bowie.

The exhibit repeatedly notes Bowie's love of "art, films, theater, the avant garde and all music genres," and in the one room specifically devoted to his songwriting, the accompanying text shares that:
"As he layers influences form music, theater and art, he devises his songs 'so that you see something new each time.'"
Yet while I enjoyed having my incessant whining about the importance of artistic exploration validated, at least in regards to Bowie, whose "influence on contemporary culture is perhaps greater than that of any other musician of his generation" (per the exhibit's introductory text), those more interested in rock memorabilia and other eye candy won't be disappointed, either.

The numerous fashions from Bowie's various phases are plentiful and fascinating, and--especially in the case of those by Kansai Yamamoto--flamboyantly fun.

A display devoted to costumes Bowie and his bandmates wore for a 3-song Saturday Night Live appearance in 1979 is clearly one of the exhibition's overt highlights.

There is also an ample section about the time Bowie spent in West Berlin from 1977-79, creating a trilogy of albums and sharing a flat with Iggy Pop; this gallery has some fine paintings Bowie made, including of Iggy.

And the exhibition doesn't sugarcoat the effects of Bowie's mid-70s cocaine addiction, with a cocaine spoon being one of its artifacts.

Yet I imagine it would be hard for anyone to adequately tour the vast exhibit--my friend Dave and I spent 2-1/2 hours there--and not come away with a greater appreciation of just how influential David Bowie has been.

From being a pioneer in bringing theatricality (and makeup) to the concert stage, to his acting in several notable plays and movies, to the way the androgynous and/or effeminate aspects of Ziggy Stardust and other personas were a boon to the nascent Gay Rights movement, it becomes clear that to think of David Bowie simply as a "rock star" greatly undermines all he has brought to the world, far beyond radio stations and record stores.

Yet anyone who--not wrongly, IMO--thinks "Sure, I appreciate all that 'David Bowie Is,' but I mostly just love his music" will undoubtedly enjoy hearing plenty of Bowie tunes through headphones that accompany the exhibition (for no extra charge beyond the $25 admission), seeing a variety of videos including a great one of "Starman," a full gallery showcasing concert appearances and several MTV clips, flipping through LP covers and reading numerous hand-written lyrics to such songs as "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Five Years," "Ziggy Stardust," "Rebel Rebel" and "Fame."

Oddly, I got a kick in noting how Bowie always dotted his "i's" with circles.

It may seem strange to some that an art museum is hosting an exhibition on a rock musician.

But not only have I never much cared for most contemporary art nor the MCA's permanent collection--the entirety of non-Bowie stuff on display took all of 20 minutes to see, and nothing dazzled except a lobby wall of punk-era portraits--I would really be hard-pressed to name a contemporary artist (to any connotation of the word) more innovative, influential and inspiring than David Bowie.

Whether you're a huge fan of his or an artistically-curious neophyte--or anywhere in between--David Bowie Is...well worth your time, and (despite $25 being a bit steep) your money.

Although David Bowie's music is certainly a major thread of the exhibit, the genesis and greatness of his songs and albums themselves are secondary to more visual aspects of his career. Yet his music merits ongoing exploration, from his hit singles to nearly the full entirety of his oeuvre. This Spotify setlist I put together when it was "David Bowie Day" in Chicago tries to cover his output to various depths (across just 22 songs). 

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