David Bowie Is, coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in just a few weeks, is unprecedented to the extent that it is the first massive solo show the MCA has ever given to a musician. But as James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling discusses below, he was drawn to the exhibition because Bowie emulates the blending of media, the crossing over of disciplines he finds so relevant to contemporary artists’ practices.
Darling was kind enough to sit down with me this month and explain how the globe–trotting blockbuster will be articulated by the MCA. In addition, he outlines an MCA permanent collection exhibition they are putting together to coincide with the show, entitled Body Doubles, which both directly and indirectly fleshes out some of the more complex themes that emerge in Bowie, citing gender fluidity in particular.
Perhaps the centrality of outer space to many of Bowie’s works and personae will find a warm welcome in Chicago, given the Afro-Futurist bedrock that under-appreciated artists like Sun Ra have cultivated and Cauleen Smith have mined. Just as Bowie is a crossover artist, there is the hope that the Bowie show will have crossover appeal by bringing non-art, and potentially even non–museum going, audiences through the MCA’s doors. In many ways, David Bowie Is is momentous for that reason as well—it marks a sea change at the MCA, and represents the first of several soon-to-be-announced exhibitions that Darling has in the works, highlighting unexpected makers in boundary blurring shows.
David Bowie, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive..
Thea Liberty Nichols: Can you contextualize the exhibition for us? I know it originated at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) in London, an art and design museum in Great Britain—can you talk about how the MCA got it, since it is the only US stop, and how it situates within the program of the museum? What does it mean for American audiences?
Michael Darling: We heard about the show early, let them know of our interest, and committed to it—we were talking to them from the beginning about it as an exclusive presentation. Because of the content and nature of the show, we really think this could be something that draws visitors from the West coast and from the East coast, as well as our local community. This circumstance is something that is fairly unique for our exhibitions, except for the hard-core art people that will come for certain shows. We’re definitely seeing that anecdotally already from reservations that are coming in from all over the world.
Over the years, we have regularly gone outside of the visual arts in our programming here, and like to pepper the program with things like architecture or design, or most recently we did the Daniel Clowes show. So it is already a regular part of our diet to break up our hard core visual art stuff with these things that are a little bit extra curricular, that stretch the notions of contemporary art and culture in a way, so this definitely feels to us like one of those type of shows. However, it is also new in the sense that we have never done anything with a musical artist in this way. Of course the fact that we already have this vibrant performance program also makes this feel less foreign to us, and the fact that Bowie’s career is exactly the same kind of career that I look for in the artists that I track and want to exhibit—Isa Genzken is a great example. I mean, I just love how she is constantly reinventing herself and never getting stuck in a rut and always looking for the next thing. It is something I always tell young artists when I am visiting with them. That is sort of what I think defines a great career, and Bowie is the epitome of that in the musical world in terms of all these different personas he has created over the years, always changing with the wind and having a really good nose for the zeitgeist.
One of the things I think is really fascinating is if you start looking at the tour for this show—the exhibition is travelling to every different type of museum out there. I mean, the V&A is more of a culture and design museum, so it makes sense there; here it is a contemporary art museum and we have made it our way; Toronto is maybe a more general fine art museum; and in São Paolo it was in a museum of sound and image. In Paris, it is going also to a music museum, and in Berlin, at the Martin Gropius Bau, more of a general-purpose kind of exhibition hall. So it is funny that people in these different countries are finding different hooks for the show, which is an amazing testament to Bowie in that he can cross over all these different disciplines. I also think it is fascinating that the show is not at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It has some elements of those kind of rock and roll shows—in that the hard core Bowie fans will really geek out on these hand drawn lyric sheets that have never been seen before—but it feels like it is a broader cultural commentary on the period he lived through and helped to define in so many different ways. I think that is why it’s interesting to us, because it works both ways: for people that are really knowledgeable (about Bowie) and people that are more interested in the ideas of his career.
Installation view, David Bowie is, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. March 23 - August 11, 2013; Courtesy The David Bowie Archive; Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
TLN: What can audiences expect to see and hear? What is the David Bowie Archive and how much of that is going to be on view?
MD: The David Bowie Archive exists because somehow, miraculously, over the years Bowie’s saved all this stuff, going back to the earliest days of his career. It has become a bit more professionalized now, with staff that look after it, all based in New York. They were contacted by the V&A with this idea of doing a show and they said yes, so the archives were really kind of opened up for the V&A curators to go and rummage through and select pieces to start building a story. I do not know all the statistics, but I think this is still just a fragment of what they have there, so this is a carefully curated and selected group of objects even though there are 400 things in the show. To me, I really see the costumes as these markers of different points in Bowie’s career. They anchor the materials on view, they are very sculptural and incredibly visual, but then surrounding them are hand written lyric sheets, contact sheets from photo sessions, finished photographs that kind of concretize these different periods as they were represented to the public—video footage, stage bills, you name it. Everybody that walks through the show is wearing headphones that register these sensors in the floor so that if you are looking at a Ziggy Stardust costume you are listening to Ziggy-era music. The exhibition is very immersive in that way. Viewers are always hearing primarily David Bowie music, but sometimes there’s also voice over commentary contextualizing things, from Bowie himself or other experts and music historians.
TLN: Bowie strikes me as really self-aware in terms of how he has manufactured these really distinct personas and mythologies surrounding himself. He has moved through many periods and genres of music throughout his career, but I think he’s best known for one particular thing: his break out moment or his star moment, even though he is still working. Is this exhibition taking a purview of Bowie’s entire career and trying to make sense of it as an aggregate? What is the big picture statement you see it making about the cultural relevance of David Bowie?
MD: Yes—I mean, this phenomenon starts when he was sixteen and was already kind of managing his image, the look of the photo shoot and wardrobe, and then goes right up to 2003 when his last concert tour happened. It is not exhaustive because I am sure there are some things that are left out in that chronology, but it does show how actively he was participating in the creation of each of these different characters, making story boards for videos or stage sets or costume designs, and letters back and forth between him and different designers or his tailor. It reminds me of someone like Andy Warhol, kind of cultivating his image in a very self-conscious way, which just seems very modern and not narcissistic. It is more a professional way of being—that this is a business and in making my art I need to control all these elements of it, steering people down the path that I want them to follow.
TLN: Do you think Bowie knew about Warhol’s time capsules?
MD: I know he spent time in the Warhol factory, and we have got some great footage of him in there, but it seems like from the documentation that he and Warhol did not really connect. And of course Bowie wrote the song “Andy Warhol” that Warhol did not really like so much, but I do not know if anybody else knew about the time capsules until Warhol’s death. I think Bowie really identified with Warhol in some ways—they met and Bowie did a screen test with him—but they just did not click.
TLN: But then he does a really interesting job playing Warhol in the Basquiat film!
MD: Yeah, I think so too.
The show is kind of about the fact that this is the first time anybody has done anything like this. You almost have to ask: why didn’t anyone do this before? Here is this man sitting in plain sight and he had done all these things over the years—once you see it all laid out in front of you you’re like, of course!
I come away from it recognizing how relevant he has been to culture at so many different touch points. To me, it is not dissimilar from a visual artist who has had all these kind of amazing chapters in their life that get pulled together in a retrospective exhibition. It serves that same purpose in that way. It is funny because people might think of Ziggy Stardust immediately, but then I think you start to realize when you hear a song, oh yeah, he was also big in the '70s and in the '80s and in the '90s. We are still hearing Cadillac commercials with David Bowie in them. His presence is really kind of everywhere; his music kind of seemed to break through to this big audience in all these different decades. It is pretty incredible.
Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design: Kansai Yamamoto. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.
TLN: With Lady Gaga or Kanye West or these artists who do a little bit of everything, outside of their field, I think the ground breaking nature of Bowie doing that at the time that he did it might get a little lost. Can you talk more about the different disciplines he crossed over into throughout his career?
MD: That is definitely something that comes out in the show—how connected he was to other fields. You see him, for example, in Warhol’s factory and collaborating with William S. Burroughs, and all these different fashion and costume designers that end up being very influential in their own fields—not to mention other musicians, like Iggy Pop. But there is also a whole section of the exhibition that deals with his theater appearances and films—that kind of multi-disciplinary quality really comes out and you realize again: Bowie is not just staying still, and he is not just a pop star, he is really trying to borrow and have dialogue with all these different fields. We are seeing this as a contemporary phenomenon. It feels right to us that an artist would venture out and not stay in their field.
To complement this, we are curating a show at the same time as the Bowie exhibition called Body Doubles, mostly from our collection, that similarly deals with ideas of fluid gender and identity. We will feature a brand new Lorna Simpson video installation and a new Wu Tsang video installation that the museum just acquired, but also work by Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy, and Hans Bellmer—these works begin to show a contemporary art variant of the things you see in the Bowie show. The exhibition anchors the Bowie show in the MCA’s own identity and collection. While it is not explicit, I think the coincidence of the concurrent exhibits will be evident. Of course, we do not want to lock it down, but we would like to point out work with very similar concerns.
TLN: There’s a nice coincidence of timing with EXPO CHICAGO, and the whole fall crush as well.
MD: Yeah, once that all started lining up it was definitely like, “ok, this is looking pretty amazing.” The alignment is a little gift for the EXPO folks, as well.
—Thea Liberty Nichols
ArtSlant would like to thank Michael Darling and Karla Loring for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(Image on top: Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973; © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie; Photo: Brian Duffy ; Archive/Design: Brian Duffy and Celia Philo; make up: Pierre La Roche)