"David Bowie Is" MCA Chicago Exhibit

“David Bowie Is”
September 23, 2014–January 4, 2015
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, IL
Michael Darling, MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator
Buy tickets here

The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s “David Bowie Is” exhibit proves to be as colorful as its subject. The exhibit is curated from over 400 items from David Bowie’s extensive collection of artifacts from his career, originally organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A quote on the museum wall explains Bowie’s standards and intentions with his music videos, as well as each of his artistic endeavors: “It has to be three-dimensional. I’m not content just writing songs.” The exhibit succeeds in presenting Bowie’s collection as a three-dimensional, larger-than-life display that honors the artist himself. 

Brightly colored walls host floor-to-ceiling music videos. Display cases hold every trinket that the artist kept. Frames preserve watermarked original sketches, inspiration pieces, and handwritten first versions of song lyrics. Mannequins stand in original stage, video, and public appearance costumes to fit each of Bowie’s many characters. Wall plaques tell the history and significance of everything you see. All the while, the audio tour accompanies each article with interviews of Bowie explaining the piece, timed by motion sensor to fit your personal tour. 

Certain things stand out about the exhibit, as well as tell about the man behind the public personas. David Bowie is a collector of the highest order and he saves everything, to the great benefit of future generations. In addition to posters, album covers, and costumes, he has saved every scrap of paper that influenced them. A pop culture magazine cover and a print from a Hindu history book are displayed together next to the final product. A pulp science fiction book cover and an article on US space travel show how he came up with a character that is now iconic. 

My favorite single object in the exhibit is a colored-in costume sketch hastily drawn on a French cigarette package in a moment of inspiration. A keychain of a fan that Bowie received from a fan would be a close second. The remarkable thing about these items is that he saved and stored them for 50 years. 

Also evident is how meticulously Bowie planned all of his characters and how seriously he took each performance. When Bowie collaborated with fashion designers to create a stage costume, he also made sure that he had everyday daytime clothing designed to fit that persona, so that he was always in character, much like a method actor. 

The final result is the kind of sensory overload that you would hope a David Bowie exhibit should boast. While I appreciated the multimedia approach, I personally found it distracting to watch videos, hear music, read, and listen to an explanation of what I was reading all at the same time. I ended up taking off my headphones and going through the exhibit once to read and think about each object, and then a second time with the audio tour—I would recommend it to get the most out of each of the many types of exciting information. Treat yourself. You deserve it.

Rebecca Fass
Nomadic Press
Fass is a Chicago writer and stand-up comedian, strutting and fretting her hour upon the stage.