David Bowie Is
By JOSHUA SIEGAL, NOV. 2014
It was nearly not so. Bowie was not the drug of choice for this show; he was merely what the next guy at the party had a good supply of. Geoffrey Marsh, of the Victoria and Albert Museum who first put together this show, admitted as much quite candidly during his press preview with the MCA's Michael Darling. The V&A had originally wanted another global rock superstar as the subject of this show, he who for legal reasons must not be named. That show fell through, and was shelved, until the opportunity to work with Bowie's archivist came knocking.
It has long ago been proven that art can live and breathe on the Rock and Roll stage. With the David Bowie Is exhibit, the MCA Chicago and its partners attempt to prove not only that the reverse is true but also that a well-scaffolded marionette show can bring Rock and Roll detritus to life.
David Bowie Is must certainly be a coup for the MCA Chicago, at least financially speaking, but we probably won't hear anyone in London, Paris, or Berlin crowing about seeing the names of their cities listed alongside the others. Chicago considers itself a global metropolis, but, with its second-city neurosis, it often acts a bit like a backwater "world-class city," one that feels the compelled to proclaim it such. The triumphalism of the press surrounding the MCA exhibit reveals a lot about the state of modern art in the "Paris of the Midwest".
London: Bowie's birthplace, capitol of his native country, backdrop for his nascence.
Berlin: adopted home and locus for a period of Bowie's creative reincarnation.
Paris: a fashion mecca.
Cleveland is where this exhibition properly belongs, stylistically and contextually. If the MCA dreams of repurposing an entire floor as the North American Museum of the Natural History of Rock and Roll, this show would be a winning shot across the bow. If it intends to remain the Museum of Contemporary Art, then we must be content to let them cough into their sleeve and collect the admissions fees.
Cultural history transplants rather shamelessly to disjointed locales. This is unabashedly a collection of artifacts, which - though presented chronologically - tries to reassure everyone that it's not a retrospective. When the remains of Tutankhamen came to this city, they were appropriately hawked for viewing not at the Art Institute, but at the Field Museum, alongside dinosaur skeletons and Native American dioramas.
MCA patrons of the Bowie exhibit will breeze past a small and completely free chamber of dangling Calder mobiles, straight into the maw of an expensive synesthetic leviathan. This is not to say that the show - as spectacle - is unworthy of the door price. Technological plumage can be expensive to display, and in this, perhaps, the show finds a kind of conceptual match: Bowie was a technological innovator - this show is innovative. Get it? But what plumage - location-aware headphone sets allow the visitor to experience an audio scape digitally cross-faded, tailored to his or her personal wandering proclivities, (Running haphazardly through the exhibit space produces a fantastically surreal live audio piece, though one not endorsed by the security staff.)
At this, the matter and presentation are expertly married: what better subject than a musical icon of the video age, to pair with roaming audio technology? Interview snippets blend through the various zones with recorded music, which itself reveals as synced video soundtrack, but only as the video comes into view. There is much to absorb here in exhibit-craft. Banished is the over worn "video bench" where tedious pieces loop at length in a tomb: no video among the many on offer lasts longer than three or four minutes, all of them nestled in some larger context. Digital media leaps from and winks at glass-cased artifacts from its own past: Bowie's handwritten notes, sketches, storyboards, and paintings. Well-placed mirrors render interlaced 1980s videos into appropriately trippy dimensions and a recreated studio room cascades talkback ghosts and out-take voices down through the space. The viewer is like an ant wandering on a circuit board inside the head of robot Bowie, stunningly attired in one of his glittery costumes.
The culminating interdisciplinary face-stuffing of the exhibit is a room that splashes together live concert footage, a novel 3D sound experiment that attempts to recreate audio immersion in said concert footage; a stand of theatrically garbed mannequins; stage plotting dioramas; rock show lighting and video montage. This is the grand finale of the fireworks show, it doesn't quite come together, but it's effective in the same way that being vomited on by a loved one is effective: undeniable, and hilarious to the degree that it's somehow pleasant - it's Bowie overdose.
So the exhibit really is the exploration of the real history of a fake persona, which was almost a completely different real history of a completely different fake persona. All dealt out with extreme care and precision. What a happy accident that the eventual subject was such a technologist. Maybe there is some resonance here with Bowie's use of oblique strategies? Maybe Bowie's references to McLuhan are eerily prescient, in that his personas have been supplanted in this exhibit by the medium, namely the exhibit itself? Maybe this all belongs in a contemporary art museum after all, if we are prepared to accept an ossification of contemporary art, that it will already start listing toward its own past, and turn into the visual corollary of jazz.
For anyone interested in how multidisciplinary installations come together, this exhibit (and perhaps the film that's already been made about it) should be worthwhile and indeed exemplary. For anyone interested in the relatively narrow topic of the expansive history of David Bowie, this show will be a delight. Those who hold out hope that modern art can continue to thrive and churn without huge influxes of cash, will come and gaze at this exhibition with horrific appreciation - like a rockabilly daddy-o witnessing Ziggy Stardust emerge from a limousine. WM
view all articles from this author
Joshua Siegal received his MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts & Media from Columbia College in 2007. His thesis was an interactive schoolroom that gave lessons on the history of compulsory education in the US. Much of his work focuses on manipulation of media and meaning, with an emphasis on the linear/circular aspects of time and vibrational nodes. He shoots, writes, codes, and plays music in Chicago, IL.