Awesome. The coolest. A god. That's our answer to what David Bowie Is. This feverishly awaited collection, culled by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, gathers more than 400 pretty things including costumes, photographs, videos and other rare ephemera that demonstrate the Thin White Duke's towering influence over 20th-century pop culture. We had two members of our staff—a Bowie superfan and a nonfan—review the exhibit.
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The nonfan's take:
Before I went to see David Bowie Is, my boyfriend asked me honestly: “How many Bowie songs can you name?” I named exactly two—“Space Oddity” and “Under Pressure”—and then said, kind of defensively, that I had also seen Labyrinth, the 1986 movie that Bowie stars in.
This is to say that I am probably the Time Out Chicago writer least interested in Bowie. But it also means that I’m coming at this show from a different perspective. Most major museum shows try to cater to a wide audience, so does David Bowie Is cater to someone who’s an art fan but who isn’t much of a Bowie fan?
Answer: Sure. But unless you’re a die-hard Bowie lover, I’d probably wait until the hubbub dies down a bit.
First off, the show itself is well-curated and just a cool thing to experience. You pick up headphones at the entrance, strap them on and the sound follows you through the show at your pace. It’s part of a partnership with a German audio company, and it works really well for a show that features so much video and audio snippets. It’s a soundtrack, not a typical audio tour. And the sound, when combined with other visuals like video, costumes, photos and album art, makes the show feel very immersive. There’s a lot to see (more than 400 objects from the David Bowie archive are here), but it’s presented in such a way that it never feels overwhelming.
While curator Michael Darling mentioned how the show’s title purposefully does not include the word “retrospective” or years, the show spans five decades. As it traces Bowie’s musical output, it also traces history, with cultural and societal changes reflected in the music, videos and costumes. For me, that was the most interesting part of the show—I quickly skipped over the cases of ephemera, like childhood photos, handwritten lyrics and letters (and there’s a lot of that), but spent more time watching videos of his live performances and looking at the progression of his costumes through the years. I’d wondered why the show was at a contemporary art museum, but Darling noted that it was also on view at a music museum in Paris and a fine art gallery in Toronto. The show may be primarily for Bowie lovers, but it can certainly appeal to a wide range of viewers.—Amy Cavanaugh
The superfan's take:
The MCA has a long history of celebrating performance alongside visual art, which makes it a great match for David Bowie Is. The exhibit organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, making its only U.S. appearance here, makes a fascinating case for Bowie as a multidisciplinary artist.
The erstwhile Davie Jones has always shown a flair for theatrics, flipping through new alter egos (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke) from one album to the next in the ’70s and touring with elaborate stage shows. Archival material on display alongside costumes and video footage demonstrates just how in control of those images Bowie has always been: extensive handwritten notes, sketches laying out compositions of album covers, storyboards for music videos, correspondence with costume designers.
The geolocated audio accompaniment works like magic, offering a pinpointed soundtrack for nearly every area of the exhibit, mostly linked to video footage: Enter the Space Oddity section, “Space Oddity” enters your ears, synced to a 1969 promotional film. (Yep, Bowie was making music videos a decade before they had a name.) It’s a remarkably immersive experience.
The exhibit does a wonderful job of contextualizing Bowie’s career, pointing out the various influences of his youth (Elvis comes up several times) and the influences on his various personas, from Stanley Kubrick to Bertolt Brecht, mime training and Kabuki theater. It also gives you a great appreciation of how daring and influential Bowie’s sexy androgyny was and is (though it plays it coy about Bowie’s actual sexuality, and his personal life in general).
David Bowie Is gives short shrift to Bowie’s post-’80s output, represented mostly in a collection of music videos with little context; his acting career also feels like an afterthought, relegated to a small side room. But his rise and peak years are so well documented here, it’s hard to complain. The audio intro suggests the exhibit will take about 90 minutes to go through, but I spent more than two hours taking it in, and came out a bigger Bowie fan than I already was.—Kris Vire