After posting a review of Simon Critchley’s book of short essays, Bowie, I couldn’t help but put down a few words about the David Bowie Is exhibit currently running at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. My wife and I first heard about the exhibit in the April 2013 edition of Q. The exhibit displays Bowie’s personal collection of clothing, instruments, music notes, video presentations and just about anything a Bowie fan would like to see.
When we learned that it was only going to have a limited North American tour with Chicago being the only US location, we knew that we had to make it a destination since our common love for Bowie’s music is a passion that blends her rocker preferences with my electronic and jazz based sensibilities. We went this past weekend, sacrificing the beautiful indian summer of San Francisco for the season turning cold of the windy city. The travel was further complicated by the O’Hare airport fire that occurred the prior week that was still causing air traffic delays on our date of departure. All of those setbacks were minor because this exhibit was totally worth it and more.
Unfortunately photography wasn’t permitted inside to catalog the experience, but this exhibit offered something that could never be presented in photography. All attendees were given headsets to listen to what was expected to be an audio tour, but on entering the exhibit the audio captivated my attention as it was uniquely set up with a positioning system that recognized where I was standing and what I was looking at. Bowie’s voice would whisper as he described his early influences as I look at his collection of books by Jack Kerouac and J. G. Ballard as well as his framed photo of little Richard. The next room presented videos of “Space Oddity” alongside posters for “2001 A Space Odyssey” and newspaper clippings of the first photos of Earth taken from space, while the opposite wall played a video of Bowie as a mime who wears a mask to gain favor and attention only to be trapped by the pressure to wear the mask and be subject to the public’s expectations. The video of the mime wearing the mask was actually one of the my favorite surprises because it was prophetic of the themes that Bowie developed and would elaborate throughout his career.
The exhibit was extremely comprehensive, and each room utilized new forms of video alongside posters, journal entries, song clippings and stage designs for his concerts. There was a room set up as a sound booth that simply played mic-checks and instrument adjustments that was both eery and beautiful. There was a room set up like a theatre that played clips from the many movies he has acted in from “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to “The Prestige”. The dialogue content from Prestige clip with Bowie playing Tesla was oddly reflective upon Bowie’s own obsessions throughout his career. I especially enjoyed the room set up to honor his “Berlin Period” that had several screens and photographs in a dark room with each display connected via white painted lines leading to the synthesizer located in the center of the room that he had used on the “Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger” albums. The mood in this room was dark but hopeful and fit perfectly with the mood of the themes of rediscovery presented on these albums.
My favorite experience was the final room, which was a large hall with three large screens that played clips from his concerts. As the concert videos changed the background would light up and reveal hidden screens showing the different clothing worn during his performances. At one point “Heroes” was played on the three separate screens during three separate concerts in 1984, 1995, and 2001 and I walked back and forth through the room to hear the different presentation of the song through the ages. His later concerts lack the theatrically of his early artistic and creative youth, but they make up for it with a refined musicality that has only gotten better with age.
The entire exhibit was truly a phenomenal experience and it saddens me that it will only be presented in Chicago. Since the exhibit is presented in a limited venue, I regret that I cannot share this experience with my friends that cannot not make it there.