"David Bowie Is" Takes over the MCA This Fall


Before the outrageous haute-couture of Lady Gaga; before the gender-bending androgyny of Boy George; before the chameleon-like reinvention of Madonna, there was...David Bowie.

In Bowie’s 50-year career, the pop music icon has taken on multiple roles: musician, lyricist, performer, actor and artist. Along the way he has collaborated with composers, fashion designers, photographers, filmmakers, and other creatives to bring his trend-setting vision—and prodigious artistic output—to a worldwide audience. 

To celebrate these creative achievements, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is hosting the much anticipated David Bowie Is, an exhibition featuring over 400 objects, including photography, video, album artwork, handwritten lyrics, original fashions and set designs—and of course, music. Originating at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Chicago is the exhibition’s only U.S. stop.

Given Bowie’s popularity, the MCA is expecting record-breaking crowds. Yet despite its celebrity caché, David Bowie Is promises to be more than a “rock star show.”

“It has that rock memorabilia kind of quality to it, especially for those who really want to see [Bowie] putting pen to paper to write out a lyric,” says Michael Darling, the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the MCA. “But the show is also able to zoom-out to address the mores of the day and show how so much of what Bowie was doing was shocking; it went against the grain.”

Examples that still manage to jolt the senses today include over-the-top stage costumes by fashion designers Kansai Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen, surrealist album cover art by Guy Peelaert for Diamond Dogs (1974), and boundary-pushing videos such as Boys Keep Swinging (1979), which features Bowie performing as a variety of male and female characters.

The exhibition’s original curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh of the V&A, interpreted the objects in the show not only as examples of Bowie’s artistic output, but also as commentaries on contemporary society. And, rightly so, the London exhibition told the story from a British perspective for a largely British audience.

“The V&A has done a good job of building a cultural and social context around the objects in the show,” says Darling. “But the MCA has been making little tweaks. I’ve been calling it our ‘remixed’ version. There are a few things we’re trying to pull out and highlight that might resonate more with an American audience.”

Included are programs, handwritten notes, and other memorabilia from the 1980 stage production of The Elephant Man, featuring Bowie, which debuted in Chicago. Also highlighted will be costumes, photographs, and video excerpts of Bowie’s 1979 Saturday Night Live musical performance.

The exhibition follows a rough chronological framework. It begins with Bowie’s early career in the 1960s, then follows his creative and commercial break-throughs in the 1970s—including the birth of his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust—and continues with highlights from Bowie’s many reinventions since then.

“The costumes from all the different periods and personas are the anchor pieces of the show,” says Darling. “You can imagine him inhabiting a particular outfit and what it meant in that time period.”

In addition to the costumes, Bowie’s music also grounds each period of the artist’s career—an exhibition soundtrack provides an audio context for the displays of visual objects. The Sennheiser Group of Germany (one of the exhibition’s sponsors) created a sound experience for David Bowie Is. Using headphones provided at the exhibition, visitors can listen to a changing soundtrack as they walk through the show. Sensors embedded in different displays recognize the presence of each visitor and match the music to the appropriate time period.

Throughout his long career, David Bowie has earned a reputation for anticipating cultural trends. His fluid identity has pushed the boundaries of music, design, performance, and the visual arts during each period of his life, continuously expanding our expectations of Bowie himself as well as what it means to be an artist. It is no surprise that David Bowie Is promises to expand what museum audiences expect from a contemporary art exhibition.


Image shown at top of page: The Archer, Station to Station tour, 1976. Photo: John Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands


David Bowie Is 

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

September 23-January 4, 2015