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Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
220 East Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
September 23, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Bowie Victims: Confessions from David Bowie Is at the MCA Chicago
by Natalie Hegert

I’m not sure exactly what Jon Savage meant when he referred to “Bowie victims” in his book about the birth of punk rock, England’s Dreaming, but ever since I read that phrase it stuck with me. In a way I identified with it—being a big David Bowie adherent—and didn’t necessarily consider it as a derogatory term. I figure he meant teens obsessed with Bowie, the young androgynes with their flared high waters and platform boots, teased mullets and green eye makeup, coyly copying the style of Ziggy Stardust with items patched together from charity shops and the backs of their mothers’ closets.


“She’s all swishy in her satin and tat, in her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat. Oh God, I could do better than that!”


Promotional photograph of David Bowie for Diamond Dogs, 1974. Photo: Terry O'Neill. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.


It seems rather trendy right now to hate on David Bowie, or at least to hate on the MCA Chicago’s exhibition David Bowie Is, which opened this week. The common refrain being a grumble about blatant blockbuster populism and some hunger for ticket sales trumping the “real art.” To be perfectly honest, I haven’t looked forward to an exhibition with such fervent anticipation in a really long time. But as I also mentioned before, I’m a self-identified Bowie victim. Perhaps the way viewers will react toward this show is entirely reliant on how they already feel about David Bowie, or about music more generally vis à vis art.


The most present, most attuned, most aware experiences I’ve ever felt took place not in art museums or galleries, such as in immersive installations or participatory performance art, but rather whilst dancing at underground music venues or house shows. Feeling the deep dark tones of bass vibrate through my feet, through my bones. Inhaling the movements of the crowd. Throwing myself into the pulsating mass of bodies. Thomas Hirschhorn wishes he could only replicate something so raw and vital in one of his installations.

Such experiences resist interpretation. Look at it too critically or too closely and you risk ruining it.


“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love. It’s too late, to be grateful. It’s too late, to be late again. It’s too late, to be hateful. The European canon is here.”


Cut up lyrics for ‘Blackout' from "Heroes," 1977. David Bowie. © The David Bowie Archive 2012. Image © V&A Images.


David Bowie Is can’t really be talked about in the same way as you talk about an exhibition of contemporary art created for the context of the contemporary exhibition hall. It’s a different animal entirely. But of course context is everything, and the context here is a museum of contemporary art, ergo this is art. It’s the tautology that makes everyone uncomfortable.

Does it mean that this exhibition doesn’t belong in a museum for contemporary art? No. I don’t know. I should hope that our conception of what constitutes contemporary art isn’t confined to such narrow definitions that it precludes popular culture, music, design, performance, poetry. The arguments against David Bowie as an artist rest more squarely on a set of unwritten assumptions about pedigree, popularity and pedagogy than any actual appraisal of his truly multi-media output.

The exhibition is quite challenging to judge, however, precisely because of this tendency—the astounding variety of objects on display, the collaborations, the costumes, the music, the writings, the performances, the videos and installations designed to synthesize his ideas and aesthetics into one consumable, entertaining whole. Bowie himself had very little to do with the exhibition personally, so it’s astounding how his archivists, the curators and the exhibition designers have come together to provide this succinct picture of one man’s artistic vision.


I’m a fan of his early work. Ziggy Stardust—with the glam guitar riffs (performed by the inimitable Mick Ronson) and outer-stellar lyrics—yes, but particularly his Berlin trilogy—with that Eno-ambient techno-melancholia—and lately I’ve been enraptured by his Thin White Duke period—with his delicate growl giving way to that intensely tensile vibrato. He loses me in the 80s and 90s, but what Bowie did in the 1970s was absolutely revolutionary.


“This ain’t rock’n’roll. This is genocide!”


The Archer, Station to Station tour, 1976. Photo: John Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands.


At the press preview someone astutely raised that point that the tone of the show and catalogue was “worshipful”, rather than critical. Perhaps a lost opportunity: We got mentions of his cocaine addiction and recovery, but there wasn’t much of his forays into Fascist imagery, which could have revealed a much more complex character and cultural viewpoint, for instance. Perhaps the curators too fell victim to the allure and charm of Bowie. It’s not that hard to imagine.

But major exhibitions such as these do not strictly function as platforms for critical apprehension, or even just for fans to admire and get close to the works, but they serve to inspire other artists. Young artists might not be so familiar with David Bowie, and those with interests in performance, music, or writing will no doubt leave the MCA inspired in some way. It’s not all nostalgia, or frivolity, or ticket sales. There’s something here.


Natalie Hegert


(Image at top: Installation view, David Bowie Is, MCA Chicago. September 23, 2014 - January 4, 2015. Photo: Nathan Keay. Courtesy of the MCA Chicago.)

Posted by Natalie Hegert on 9/29 | tags: performance mixed-media David Bowie pop-culture lyrics multi-media music

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Sarah Charlesworth
The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603
September 18, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Longing for Flight: Sarah Charlesworth’s Stills
by Ionit Behar

“Falling, rushing, ruining! buried in the ruins, on Urthona's dens”

– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-1793.


Icarus’ father Daedalus made him wings and warned him not to fly too close to the sun. But Icarus, ecstatic with the ability to fly, forgot his father’s caution—the feathers came loose and Icarus descended to his death in the sea. This Greek myth can be literally interpreted as the human desire to overcome his or her limits. In psychology, to put it simply, this myth has been understood as a “mania” in which a person is fond of heights, fire, and water.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, conceptual photographer Sarah Charlesworth (American, 1947-2013) dedicated her series Stills to the mysterious behavior of “falling.” The series is composed of enormous black and white silver gelatin photographs of people, men and women, falling from buildings. The fourteen blown up 78-inch tall prints—six of which have never been shown before—are part of a single artist proof edition made especially for the Art Institute. Curator Matthew S. Witkovsky creates a composition that is fascinating, and also disconcerting. Each work shows a different person exposed to gravity: facing down, facing up, or sideways. In some images, the backgrounds are more legible than others, some more abstract than others. Are they real falls? Suicides? Acting? Though the images are revealed to have come from various media archives, the viewer ultimately does not know the cause of action and it becomes distressing. An elegant catalogue accompanies the exhibition, where Witkovsky writes that it is unreasonable to “disconnect Stills from the terrorist attacks of 2001 even though the original pictures greatly predate them.”[1] While Charlesworth’s images do not aim to distance themselves from horror, they also do not look towards a specific historical or social event. The photographs are the fall itself.

Charlesworth has long-since been interested in the in-between stage, a place amid two states of being, which in this exhibition could be seen as Heaven and Earth. In 1979, Charlesworth went to news agencies and the New York Public Library to ask for photographs of people falling in fires and suicides. In other words, she was asking for people falling or flying, which at times sounds the same. Unfortunately, like Icarus, we will always need external assistance in order to achieve flight. Or in the words of Peter Greenaway, “Alas, the best we can do is fall and believe ourselves flying.”[2]

Sarah Charlesworth, Unidentified Woman, Hotel Corona de Aragon, Madrid, 1980, printed 2012, No. 1 of 14 from the series Stills. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth / Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.


Charlesworth’s images are tragic. While they are abstract, and in a way distant from reality, it is obvious that tremendous hardships led these people to decide to jump, fly, fall. But there is also another dilemma within these images—the question of the media itself. Who took these pictures in the first place? Were they able to help the person falling but instead decided to snap a photo? How were so many images captured before the time of the iPhone? In the gallery, you could hear visitors quietly reacting: “Wow,” “Is this real?” “I’ll wait for you outside,” and “this is not a 9/11 image, is it?” It only took the public a minute or less to feel uncomfortable. Visitors who had trouble looking at the works might argue that it does not matter that the works are conceptual, because one can still see the person falling. However, the large size of the images forces the viewer closer to the person falling in the photograph. It also allows “viewers to imagine themselves stepping into the picture.”[3] There is a mocking perversity in the depiction of a person falling. Flight violently contradicts those two states of being: living and dying.

Witkovsky, as well as activist Kate Linker, claims that these photographs are abstract. Which is to say, we do not know what is actually happening in them. For most of the works, we do not even know the identity of the person falling. Who or what is waiting for them on the ground? Do they die? After selecting a number of images, Charlesworth cropped and manipulated them to the extent that some appear more abstract than others. For example, Jerry Hollins, Chicago Federal Courthouse appears as a blurry figure falling sideways in between waves of motion in black and white. Additionally, nine of fourteen are captioned as “unidentified” solitary individuals falling from heights. Regardless of whether the works specify a location, they still feel incomplete. Even when the person’s name is revealed on some occasion (Jerry Hollins, Vivienne Revere, or Dar Robinson) we do not know who they really are. What exactly are these images showing us, and for whom are they intended? One thing that is certain is that Charlesworth did not want her images to be reduced to a news story.

Sarah Charlesworth, Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 10 of 14 from the series Stills. The Art Institute of Chicago, Krueck Foundation and Photography Gala Funds, 2013.129; © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth / Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.


Charlesworth’s manipulation of the archival imagery is embedded within the very violence it seeks to investigate; these tools of vision are inextricably intertwined with the history of “falling.” The ambiguous imagery she generated systematically hides the reality it attempts to address. The artist hoped that with Stills, our feet would not leave the ground, but our minds might. The philosophical questions Charlesworth's Stills pose are interesting: imagine trying to fly without being prepared, trying to swim without water.  


Ionit Behar


[1] Witkovsky, Matthew S.  Sarah Charlesworth: Stills. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2014, 19.

[2] Greenaway, Peter. Flying Out Of This World. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1994, 2.

[3] Witkovsky, 13.


(Image at top: Sarah Charlesworth, Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 14 of 14 from the series Still. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth / Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.)

Posted by Ionit Behar on 10/10 | tags: photography conceptual Pictures Generation

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Josef Strau
Renaissance Society
5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
September 21, 2014 - November 9, 2014

Who is Responsible for the American Dream?
by Caroline Picard

I had a dream a couple years ago in which a new, previously unknown continent was discovered on Earth. The knowledge entered my consciousness first like the ambient news of a radio dispatch. It was an impersonal knowledge, born through the slippery medium of dream space, the source of the transmission overlooked as my dream self wondered instead about the profound consequence such a discovery might have on the rest of humankind. The next thing I remember is that I stood on the ground of the new country. It was made of gypsum, entirely empty except for many animals who seemed to have been living there for a very long time. I woke up shortly thereafter in a warm stupor. Imagine the way our concept of global space would change upon discovering that we had, for so many decades, overlooked an entire continent. It would offer so much to the imagination. A blank place to start again. To be reborn, as they say, with the luxury of retaining prior memories. In his first US solo exhibition, Josef Strau examines such a place. The New World, Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society reflects a real new world: the Americas.

Leaving University of Chicago’s academic corridors behind, The Renaissance Society’s double doors act as a portal, opening up on a flood lit, counter intuitively large, modern gallery; Strau uses that sense and shock of arrival into a new space as a backdrop for a series of material assemblages. Positioned throughout the room on various low-lying plinths, or occasionally on the floor, these small islands contain the same family of objects repeated in different configurations: metal gates, or printed flags with those metal gates, or messily painted ceramic tiles so small in comparison as to be easily overlooked. There are a variety of IKEA lamps, the lampshades of which are in some cases still wrapped in plastic. Others are fitted with tasseled shades or garnished with elaborate and lush folk-art-esque sequin paintings of Pocahontas, the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, a bear and a wolf together—as they so often appear in the rest of the exhibit—a turtle, a priest, a purple bird. Ceramic bamboo sticks make a regular appearance as well in this tableaux, as do fabrics and flags with Strau’s text. Another recurring component is a ceramic turtle—its shell hollowed out like a dish—offering itself up, as if suddenly in service. 

Josef Strau, Turtle Island (detail), 2014; Courtesy the artist; House of Gaga, Mexico City; Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; and the Renaissance Society, Chicago; Photo: Tom Van Eynde


If exhibits can have main protagonists, the stars of this one are a wolf and a bear; originally stuffed animals, they appear in the exhibit as unglazed, white plaster multiples. In most instances they appear as a pair, sometimes sitting side by side, sometimes across from one another. Often it looks like they are rowing, and by that simple gesture transform their plinths into rafts, the floor into a kind of metaphorical river. Not surprisingly, Strau references the Mississippi in his book—another document of the exhibition—and a photograph of the comical couple also sits on its back cover. The artist photographed the pair when the bear and the wolf still sat plush in his studio. “Coincidentally,” he writes, “I had caught them [in the photograph] while in fact they were reading [my] text poster on the wall next to them. They read very carefully and with great focus obviously. First I just laughed and said to myself, they are probably, aside from 2 or 3 exceptions, the only ones that have read my texts in germany”[1] .

The soft animals consistently appear as friends and allies to the artist, and yet a remarkable conversion takes place. The animals are translated from image into a mold, from which more bears and wolfs are born. These hard representations are frozen in the same position, becoming archetypal. They populate the installation like characters, where each assembled plinth could be one frame of a single comic book. Strau’s own book ends in Mexico, where the artist worked with friends to create the publication, which includes the photograph of the bear and wolf. Overall, there is a delineation between the book and the material exhibition. In his talk with curator Solveig Øvstebø, he explains that text occurs in the past, whereas exhibitions appear in the present. Nevertheless there is a real connection: sequential chapters printed on the page, and constellations of objects installed in the gallery are two different kinds of islands, all of which feel similarly fragmented, and personal.

The text also begins with friendship, though its account reflects the strange and somewhat accidental unfolding of a new friendship. The way discomfort becomes intimacy. Not surprisingly, the book begins in the old world of Europe; in the second chapter the holocaust enters the artist’s thoughts. Or, rather, we enter the artist’s family history, and the way one of Strau’s aunts escaped the holocaust on a boat to America. Somehow, those stories are also present in the material tableaus Strau assembles for this exhibit. Using objects like characters—indeed objects that even appear in the text—he creates a vertiginous mash up of American mythologies. Present in the semiotics of these materials is the decimation of Native Americans; the chains of slavery; even the pangs of America’s immigration policies: all threads that remain present while sublimated into the friendly guise of our bear, wolf, and sequin lamps.


Josef Strau, Guadalupe Speaks, 2014; Courtesy the artist; House of Gaga, Mexico City; Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; and the Renaissance Society, Chicago; Photo: Tom Van Eynde


When Strau talks about this project, he emphasizes an unabashed appreciation and love for this continent. In the show’s poster, he even writes, “For many months I tried to work on these obviously simple expressions of the happiness in everyday life that I first finally found in my life in these countries on the great continent of the Americas.” He describes this work as an act of gratitude. 

Nevertheless, there is an underlying and purposeful ambivalence in the exhibition. A can of Red Bull is nestled into one assortment of things — the only one of its kind in the whole show—it sits nevertheless on purpose, a tiny but powerful advocate for enhanced production. The gates are metal, jutting, and fierce; by delineating space they create exclusive borders. Pocahontas’ prayer repeats on different pedestals where it, like the turtle and even Strau’s use of America’s original name in his exhibition title, remind the audience that the New World so many of us came to was an ancient home to others. In fact, he reminds us, the Americas represent an idea more than a place—as a stuffed bear translated into a hard, easily reproduced ideology. America is “‘no country but an invention for foreigners and for immigrants…garnished with factories of dreams’”[2]. Even the repetitive material of the brand new lamps recall a discount show room for disposable furnishings; the hard white casts of bear, wolf, turtle, sea shell etc.—those items too are similarly situated within a global economic landscape of mass production, capitalism, and consumerism.

The new world is always a dream, but it is a complicated one. A place one desires to furnish with affordable and hopeful things. A site for productivity. Strau’s own questions resonate as a final word, “But what if I tell I [sic] a dream in American? Is this me or something or someone else doing so? Who is responsible for this unconscious American dream and who for the factory?”[3]


Caroline Picard


[1] The New World 1: The Application, p.107

[2] Ibid. p. 48

[3] Ibid


(Image at top: Josef Strau, The New World, Application for Turtle Island, Installation view, 2014. Courtesy the artist; House of Gaga, Mexico City; Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; and the Renaissance Society, Chicago; Photo: Tom Van Eynde.)

Posted by Caroline Picard on 10/17 | tags: installation mixed-media sculpture immigration new world american dream

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