|David Bowie Is...all over Chicago right now.|
The exhibit, on display until January 4, 2015, represents the first time that an eclectic array of multi-media objects have been brought together to tell the story of Bowie's almost 50-year career. Unlike other musicians, Bowie is a natural for a contemporary art museum because he has not only been a singer but a painter, actor, producer, fashion innovator, and video artist, as well as witness to post-World War II history.
After establishing Bowie's place as a child of an England still dazed that it survived Hitler, the exhibit continues along a loose chronology that also pulls in the various influences that Bowie has used to build his career.
I was mainly excited about the trove of costumes and outfits that the exhibit brought, and I was largely, with one glaringly painful exception, satisfied. Many attendees will be dazzled by the crazy colors and cuts of the Ziggy Stardust-era costumes, and these are fun. You are at once amazed at their outlandishness and almost startled to realized that many of them are made of materials that normal humans wear. Unlike what you might think when you see them in videos, these threads were not distributed by aliens -- just made extraordinary by the talented people Bowie has met over his lifetime.
But the one costume I was most eager to see was a curatorial disappointment. I was looking forward to being able to study the layers and fabrics of the galactic clown suit Bowie wore in the video for "Ashes to Ashes." This 1980 song reprises the character of Major Tom from his 1969 novelty "Space Oddity." Designed by one of his best collaborators, Natasha Korniloff, I was almost desperate to see how its light slivery-blue petals and mesh looked in real light.
Alas, there was little light, real or not, on the costume in the exhibit. Stuck in a corner and poorly lit, I was so upset that I stood in front of the thing for a few minutes, wondering if, like some other areas of the exhibit, the lighting would change or something. No. My husband got a quick earful from me, then cleverly distracted me by pointing at a more recent coat that Bowie had worn in a 1997 video, the cut and pattern of which was more evident in person.
Still, some of the outfits held delightful surprises. My husband and I both noticed a detail on a jumpsuit from one of my favorite Bowie videos -- a detail it had taken me 30 years to see. One of the iconic outifts from this exhibit -- seen all over the press materials -- was a 1997 Union Jack coat by Alexander McQueen. Bowie returned to McQueen often in the 1990s for elaborate coats, making the designer's recent suicide that much more tragic.
Beyond the clothes, I was not sure that there was much more I could learn from the exhibit. I hate if this comes off as snobby, but I have been consuming Bowiestuff for so long (and my husband has been a genius at finding bootlegged audio and video on the Internet) that I was not sure there were any more revelations for me. There were -- perhaps revelations is not the right word, so let's try re-appreciations.
Like this: mime was one of Bowie's early influences, but because I grew up with Shields and Yarnell and Saturday Night Live, whenever I see Bowie doing mime I usually crack up and make stupid jokes. I had to get over that at the exhibit and watch a 15-minute long early performance, where Bowie is a man who finds a mask, and that mask helps him become someone else on stage -- with tragic results.
Not only did I finally become amazed at how good he was at mime, but I also saw in the piece themes and moves that he would return to over and over in his career. A short retrospective of some of his film and stage performancess revealed just how important his mime training was. I will never make fun of mime again (unless prompted by Crow or Tom Servo).
This is a big exhibit, with many things to look at, and many media used to explain its subject. Until now, I have not had much to talk to other Bowie fans about other than music and videos. It would be great to hear from you if you attend -- what stood out to you, what made no sense, what was exciting?