Q&A: Michael Darling talks about curating "David Bowie Is"

We spoke with the Museum of Contemporary Art curator about putting together a Bowie exhibit worthy of a rock star
Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, MCA
Photograph: Nathan Keay Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, MCA
By Zach Long |

Since taking over as the Museum of Contemporary Art's chief curator in 2010, Michael Darling has been striving to present visitors with exciting and challenging art. Recent exhibitions of work by cartoonist Daniel Clowes and conceptual artist Simon Starling have attracted new audiences to the venerable art institution, but the international touring “David Bowie Is” exhibition seems poised to become the MCA’s most popular show to date. We spoke with Darling about how this tribute to an artful rock star is being adapted to take advantage of the MCA’s facilities.

RECOMMENDED: Take a peek at costumes and more from "David Bowie Is"

How was the MCA chosen to host this exhibition?
"As soon as we found out about the exhibition through the press in early 2013, I immediately got on the phone with somebody at the Victorian and Albert Museum [in London] and expressed our interest in the show. We jumped into negotiations with them pretty quickly and from the beginning we spoke about being the first American venue for the show. As the interest in the show started to build, almost all of the other venues that approached them were international ones, so we ended up being not only the first American venue, but also the only one."

What was it about "David Bowie Is" that initially piqued your interest?
"We've always had exhibitions on our calendar that go outside the realm of visual arts, whether its architecture, furniture design or fashion design. Yet, we'd never had an exhibit centered around a performing artist like David Bowie, a man who has collaborated with so many artists from different fields and disciplines. We felt that this would be a good way to look at a truly creative person who has been crossing artistic boundaries for more than 40 years. Bowie created dialogue around issues like gender fluidity early in his career, long before these topics began dominating discussion in our culture. So much of what he was doing in popular culture has analogues in art, so it felt like a natural fit for us."

How are social implications of Bowie's work addressed in the exhibition?
"Throughout the show, viewers will see the costumes that he was wearing in the early '70s, which at the time seemed truly shocking in their androgyny or overtly-sexualized way. As a male performer, he was wearing what would typically be deemed women's shoes and women's outfits and doing things that chaffed against conventions and traditions. The film footage and the wall text in the exhibit help explain the things that are on view—it doesn't shy away from the social implications of Bowie's art or leave them as innuendo, it's all openly discussed in a number of different ways."

Seeing as the collection of memorabilia was already assembled, what was your role as the curator of this exhibit?
"Much of my work involved sorting out practical matters—using my knowledge of how our spaces work, how visitors flow through them and how we could translate this exhibit to the MCA so that it maximized the effect of the different sections. I also was very attentive to the needs of an American audience seeing this show. Much of the wall text was written for British audiences when it was shown in London and in many cases those were carried over when it was shown in Toronto. I've tried to Americanize everything a bit and put it into context for our audience, taking a more universal look at the concepts and ideas. I also gave more prominence to certain chapters of the show that I felt would resonate with American audiences. One in particular was Bowie's 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. In London, it was a small part of the show, but I've tried to create a whole section around it here because it felt like something that Americans would recognize the importance of. The costume he wore and the song he played are really incredible, so that felt like something that we should heighten."

Can you tell us about how audio and video is being used in the exhibition?
"Everybody that comes into the show is given a set of headphones, so the audio component is essential to the understanding of the show. I suppose that somebody could go through and just look at the objects, but it's set up in such a way that as you're walking through the exhibition, you pass through different zones and the headphones will respond to your presence. If you're standing in front of a Ziggy Stardust costume, you're listening to Ziggy Stardust–era music. The audio adapts to your path through the exhibit. Most of the audio is Bowie's music, though there are some interviews and audio commentary by Bowie and others. All throughout the exhibition there is video footage, including documentaries from the period, music videos and concert footage. There is a lot to look at."

Is there a specific section of the exhibit that particularly proud of?
"I am very fond of the Saturday Night Live section because it captures the height of new-wave music in the U.S. One of the performers that Bowie brought onstage was Klaus Nomi, who had been working as a live mannequin in the windows of a store called Fiorucci in New York, where new-wave fashion was being sold and promoted. Some of Bowie's influences in that period were German expressionist and Dadaist films, so it's not only contemporary but also aware of a historical precedence—that's something that appeals to the curator in me. Some of the other outfits he wore are fascinating as well. There's one section of the exhibit where we put together some of these costumes, including one used in a video for "Boys Keep Swinging," where he's in drag as three different female personas. You get a sense of how ahead of the curve he really was."

"David Bowie Is" runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sept 23–Jan 4.