Friday, December 12, 2014

David Bowie Is

Note: Sadly, due to copyright laws and MCA rules, photography at this exhibit was not allowed. I will instead attempt to convey my visit through words and augment them with occasional products of a Google search.

There is no art this man cannot create.

Painting. Sketching. Writing. Acting. Video. And of course, music,

Hell, he can even do mime.

I entered the exhibition "David Bowie Is" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago certainly as a fan of David Bowie. Thanks to the production at MCA, I have somehow emerged an even bigger fan. I believe that is because I now truly identify with him.

Please, please, please do not confuse that with me saying I am as talented as he is. I'm not. Not by a long shot. I do, however, relate strongly with his artistic philosophy as well as his methods. I just wish I were as fearless as he is. 

And being as talented wouldn't hurt. But I digress...

The exhibit at MCA is truly an immersive multimedia experience. Right from the beginning, staff hand you headphones. At different nodes in the exhibit continuum, the headphones receive narration, interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, and of course a soundtrack of his music. That latter point is especially fun as I caught myself singing along and noticing my fellow art patrons were doing the same.

The whole thing begins, logically, with his formative years. I was heartened by hearing that Bowie has always been a voracious reader and his original intention was to be a writer. The exhibit features his original paperback copies of the Colin MacInnres novel, Absolute Beginners, a title Bowie would later crib along with the title of the play, Look Back in Anger. 

The next station of the exhibit featured his intense interest in science fiction culminating in his signature songs "Space Oddity" and "Starman." Glass cases housed copies of J.G. Ballard novels owned by Bowie and posters for Kubrick films such as 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, both having profound influences on Bowie's music at the time. There was even the actual sea-green jumpsuit designed by Willie Brown that Bowie wore for a performance of "Starman." See below.

I think I could totally rock that outfit. The little flying saucer pins are just

Bowie also took considerable inspiration from Japanese art. Consider the following caped stage costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto:

Sort of looks like those space alien villains from the Toho films. Part of the translation on the gown, according to the exhibit text, is "spits fiery words."
Seriously. How fucking cool is that?

I was very pleased to see space devoted to Bowie's connection to William Burroughs. The original typewritten pages of Burroughs' Rolling Stone interview with Bowie were on display, but more importantly you see much much the cut-up method of writing as pioneered by Burroughs and Brion Gysin is a part of Bowie's writing process. This is in part how he arrives at amazing turns of phrase such as "gazely stare," "heart's filthy lesson," and even "hot tramp." Artistic verbigeration.

Bowie became fascinated with the concept of dystopia and had planned to do a musical stage production of George Orwell's 1984. Sadly, he could not get the rights to it. That did not stop him. Instead, Bowie worked up his own stage environment called "Hunger City" (suck it, Suzanne Collins. Bowie was first) where a totalitarian regime oppressed the proletariat. A roving gang called The Diamond Dogs is led by a character named Halloween Jack and draws heavily on A Clockwork Orange inspiration.

This might be where I find my deepest connection with Bowie. Someone once asked me, "What do you write about?" My friend Dorkland happened to be standing there at that moment and immediately piped in "Whatever he's obsessing on at the time." That comment irked me, but with a cooler head now I can honestly say it's true.

Same goes for Bowie. He would grow enamoured with a visual, a concept, or even a word. He would then focus on that new idea to the exclusion of all else, laser-focusing his vision on the concept. He would build worlds around it such as Hunger City or the cafe from "Serious Moonlight" and populate them with characters such as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and Nathan Adler. In the process, he would transform himself and his entire persona (one striking example is his role as John Merrick in a stage production of The Elephant Man.) When he would see his vision as complete, he would then discard it and become immediately fascinated by something else.

I took heart in this. No doubt Bowie had received the same snide comments as I have, "You keep changing your look" and "So that's what you're into this year."

There was a phrase painted on an exhibit from Bowie's Berlin era: "Plagiarism or Revolution." Like all great artists, I believe that Bowie is both. He consumed all he could of that which inspired him, then mashed it up until it was made into his own before disgorging it in the studio or onto the page. 

There is so much more to the exhibit but space and time demand that I end here. I could go on talking about Bowie's work with Brian Eno and Klaus Nomi as well as his Dadaist art. Most impressive of all was the video room with his costumes from "Ashes to Ashes," "Blue Jean," and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson." Then there's the "David Bowie Is Live" room with his stage costumes (his blue suit from Live Aid!) and concert footage projected upon a scrim a la "Sound+Vision." 

I was especially shocked to find a case with a crumpled tissue in it. The tissue had his lipstick on it from I think the Aladdin Sane era. That means his DNA is on it. I wanted to steal it and clone my own Bowie.

That beats anything from the giftshop.

If you go to the exhibit, I suggest allowing at least two hours to watch every video, read all text, and see all the fantastic outfits.

Above: Bowie's stage wear from Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen.
Below: An original Bowie painting.

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