In pop culture today, it’s almost expected for big-name performers to combine their musical talent with artistic collaborations, consistently reinventing themselves and taking on new personas. Beyoncé embodied a sassy and independent Sasha Fierce and the sexually confident Yoncé. Lady Gaga took on a masculine persona as Jo Calderone for G.U.Y., while also addressing activism, gender and sexual identities, and social issues through the art in her music videos and her lavish costumes. And Nicki Minaj seems to be the most extravagant of them all: claiming five alter egos—Nicki, Barbie, Roman, Martha, and Rosa—who she interweaves throughout her music and performances.
But no one has done it quite as well, or as long, as David Bowie, whose epic five-decade career as a musician, artist, and actor is being honored with a museum retrospective, David Bowie Is, touring institutions throughout the world. On Tuesday, the ambitious look at the performer’s life and work is making its first and only American stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the next four months, before heading back to Europe. Chi-town’s mayor has officially marked the occasion “David Bowie Day.”
The massive retrospective, which opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London early last year, is more than just an art exhibition. In fact, it’s one of the largest, most expensive multimedia showcases the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) has ever undertaken. It also promises to be their most successful.
“We want to break our own internal records for the most-well-attended exhibition in the MCA’s history,” the museum’s chief curator, Michael Darling tells The Daily Beast. The show’s run in London saw well over 300,000 visitors. Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario extended its run three times and had 150,000, which is the total size of MCA’s annual attendance and the number administrators hope will turn out to the Bowie exhibit, making it the biggest show in the museum’s 47-year history.
But Darling makes it very clear that this is not just a show about a pop star, no matter how much buzz his name generates.
“It’s not just a puff piece on David Bowie,” Darling says. “It really looks at all the aspects of his creativity and how intimately involved he is in each song, albums, concert tour, and everything.”
The multi-part exhibition combines over 400 items from Bowie’s extensive personal archive (he employs a staff to oversee more than 75,000 items) with film and a state-of-the-art audio guide to examine the performer’s tremendous impact on society and popular culture.
Bowie was born David Jones to a waitress mother and public relations father in Brixton, England, in 1947. The exhibit briefly points out his early inclination toward rock stardom, displaying memorabilia from bands he formed with friends as a teenager, including story boards for potential videos and costume sketches. The show then picks up steam with the introduction of his first hit, 1969’s Space Oddity, and continues throughout the various identities he took on, such as Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane, and the inspirations behind some of his most iconic looks: a shot of Earth from space (Space Oddity), a poster of A Clockwork Orange (Ziggy Stardust), and World War II news clippings.
“I wanted to emphasize both the creation of these characters, and also when Bowie would abandon those and move on to the next one, to emphasize this constant reinvention all the way through,” Darling says, explaining why he implemented a stricter chronological narrative in the exhibition.
Costumes worn by each reinvented persona act—in all their extravagant glory—serve as the anchors for the exhibit.
“We’ve got a lot from the ’70s, of course, when things were really outrageous and glammed out,” Darling says. There are even pieces from later collaborations with very sophisticated and risky fashion designers like Thierry Mugler, Hedi Slimane, and Alexander McQueen. “Real fashion folks will get a lot out of that.”
Iconic looks include the metallic and asymmetrical bodysuits from the Aladdin Sane tour, the ice-blue suit from the Life on Mars? video, and the quilted two-piece suit from his 1972 Ziggy Stardust phase.
Surrounding these costumes are hand written song lyrics, a myriad of personal photos, album cover graphics, and music videos that pre-date MTV and were made long before video elements were a staple in music. There’s even the cocaine spoon from Bowie’s darker days and the saxophone he used on the Pin Ups album, still stained with lipstick.
Yet, the most impressive aspects of the exhibition may be the Sennheiser audio guides handed to visitors at the museum’s entrance. The sound system, created specifically for the show, rivals—and sometimes upstages—the visual experience, allowing a hands-free, uninterrupted private tour like never imagined before. As users explore the darkened gallery spaces, the guide is activated when in range of a particular item or video. Songs, interviews, and stories related to the nearby objects begin to play. At one moment, you could be hearing samples from a song while looking at a costume; the slight shift of your feet then activates an interview with Bowie from that time period, something that you might have missed before. The two experiences become intertwined and the viewer is able to absorb as much of the information as possible without searching for guide numbers or fumbling through tracks.
While a musician may seem odd as the subject of a major art museum retrospective, Bowie was also a more traditional artist. The show includes three big oil paintings he made while hiding out and living with Iggy Pop in Berlin and drawings of family members from his youth. His works even have links to contemporary artists working in similar modes, such as feminist photographer Cindy Sherman.
“For instance there is an amazing 1979 video for the song Boys Keep Swinging where he appears as himself singing and then also as three different female drag backup singers,” Darling says of the resemblance to Sherman’s experiments playing different female character roles. “It’s been fun to get a contemporary art audience in here and see his connections of how far ahead of the curve he was so many different ways.”
David Bowie Is is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until January 4, 2015.