Maybe it’s David Bowie, the actor, who in 1976 in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' portrayed Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien desperately seeking sustenance on Earth after his own planet is deadened by drought, and whose performance elicited these qualifiers from the late critic Roger Ebert: ”Other, Depart, Defined Within,” or maybe you think of the eerie but elegant vampire, John Blaylock, who uses Egyptian pendants as his armour rather than a proper set of fangs, in 1983’s 'The Hunger'.

He was, for an intoxicating decade, Glam Rock God, Ziggy Stardust, but he also more than dabbled in electronica and folk. British David Jones began his musical career as a saxophone player. His brilliant sense of style, distinctive vocals and love for language soon translated into album after album of original hits (and collaborations with other stars) which included monster singles, 'Space Oddity', 'Fame' and 'Let's Dance'.

Bowie shocked the establishment by posing in women’s garb on ‘The Man Who Sold the World', and even demonstrated that androgyny can be a liberating life force, and when his alter egos became burdensome he reinvented himself, again and again, sometimes befuddling fans and critics; still eliciting qualifiers like evasive or mysterious.

His amazing career began in the 1960s and continues today – Bowie has been back in the studio, although not in the performing arena – but he’s been far from forgotten. The Victoria & Albert Museum recently launched the exclusive 'David Bowie Is' exhibit, and after its successful run it comes to Chicago on September 23rd.

But why Chicago? After all, Chicago is generally the forgotten cousin, the “city with big shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg once said, and it is a hardworking place but it is also the city which patiently waits its turn whilst Broadway absorbs the hits in New York and drive-through coffee bars, organic food coops and Hollywood films get first shot in L.A. Chicago vied for the Olympics and was shot down. Again.

But to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s credit, spearheaded by chief curator, Michael Darling, Chicago bolted to the head of the queue this time. “Second City”, no more, Mr. Darling explains how we got it, what we’ll do with it, how the legendary V & A greatly inspired the launch and why it’s bound to be one hell of a knockout.


PB: How did the Museum of Contemporary Art get selected as the U.S. debut site for the 'David Bowie Is' exhibit?

MD: When we heard about the show we immediately got in touch with the V & A and just started negotiating some dates with them, and from the very beginning negotiated the idea that we wanted to be the first venue if it was really going to work for us. So, I think it was about being timely and aggressive and, of course, I think they realised that this was a major market for the show to be seen in. So, we definitely had that going for us.

PB: There are about four hundred objects that need to be dealt with to set us this project. How much manpower and time will this require?

MD: A lot. I would say more than any other exhibition we’ve ever put on in the museum. It’s really a big show. We have about seven weeks of down time between the show that preceded the Bowie show and the Bowie Show opening, and that’s about the longest that we’ve ever had between shows – the first show happened pretty quickly and then that left about six weeks just to set up the Bowie show. That’s pretty extensive for us. Usually those turnarounds are more like three or four weeks. It’s really a lot of time, a lot of manpower to make it happen.

PB: The exhibit features guidePORT technology, which helps make this exhibit interactive. How does that work?

MD: Basically your ticket to get into the show is a set of headphones and a little device that you connect to that you wear around your neck. So, everyone who walks in gets one of those, and immediately it starts to recognise where you are in the space and adjusts the soundtrack accordingly. First, you’ll get an introduction from our director and, as you walk into the show and if you’re looking at any given way, the corresponding and correct soundtrack will be playing. You’re always accompanied by some music or some commentary and that’s the case as you go through the whole exhibition.

PB: In the screening room ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ will be shown.

MD: In that room, there’s about a fifteen minute loop of selections of various films that he’s appeared in over the years and it gives you a little bit of a sampler. There will also be some posters and props and other things from various films that he was in and even the theatrical plays that he was in, as well.

PB: David Bowie was inspired by William Burroughs to do “cut outs.” Will that aspect of his writing be explored?

MD: Yes, very much so. It’s dealt with in a video presentation, but also you’ll see collages of words that he would have cut up in order to make these lyrics and also this little device, the Verbasizer, that he would have used, which is more of a computer program for mixing up words and coming up with new combinations of words and phrases. So, that’s a whole subsection unto itself.

PB: You put on an Andy Warhol exhibit at MCA previously.

MD: We did do an Andy Warhol exhibit several years ago that was called 'Supernova', I think, and, of course, we have Andy Warhol in our collection and he definitely is a very interesting corollary to Bowie in many ways.

PB: Did that exhibit inform the Bowie exhibit in any way?

MD: Not really, only in that Bowie and the way he conducted his career doesn’t feel strange to us. It feels very natural for a contemporary art museum because of the legacy of somebody like Andy Warhol and the idea of playing with the media and playing with different personas and using the media. That's why a lot of this show feels very comfortable to us. It doesn’t feel like Bowie is an interloper in our contemporary art territory, in a way (Laughs).

PB: But it is unusual to have an exhibit that is so multi-layered as opposed to a purely visual representation.

MD: Yes, or maybe the thing that I think that surprised people at first is that it’s a pop star and how does that fit with a contemporary art museum? I think it’s all of this very thoughtful and concerted effort that he’s put into this over the years to really seek out other collaborators from different fields and continually push himself that makes him more than a pop star and somebody that’s really carefully crafted this whole body of work over forty plus years.

PB: Has the MCA been involved with the Bowie documentary that’s coming out at the same time?

MD: No. That’s something that wasn’t produced by us but, of course, we’re working with the folks behind it in order to synch up our dates and help to push more awareness of our exhibition. They’re likewise kind of using our show to bolster interest in their film, so it’s a mutually supportive kind of situation.

PB: Will the film do justice to this exhibit? Will it substitute for the exhibit?

MD: It’s such a physical, bodily kind of experience, going to see this show, and it really takes real time to experience all the videos and these objects in person and especially the costumes – getting right up close to them. I think it’s more of a teaser and helps explain how this gigantic project came into being, but the project itself still is the main attraction for people to see these actual costumes and see these set lists and see the contact sheets from some of the famous photo shoots. I think that’s what people are really going to want to see.

PB: Bowie was inspired by the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto and Kabuki. Those costumes must be extraordinary.

MD: The ones he did with Kansai Yamamoto are some of my favourites. They’re just really theatrical. You can see how they are both homages to Japanese culture but also very much of their time. They are these glam rock artifacts, very showy, very over-the-top and very androgynous. It’s interesting how he navigated those different two reference points in a way.

PB: You actually have a stage set from the 'Diamond Dogs' tour?

MD: Yes. It’s a scale model, but it is one of those sets in a concert tour that was absolutely legendary at the time and incredibly expensive. He toured that all over the United States and into Canada, and so it’s just one of those markers of his career that we wanted to have documented in a really deep way. You not only have the model for the stage set, but you have story boards that build the story around that staging, and, of course, costumes that appeared. and also some film footage too from the Philadelphia version of that concert tour.

PB: Bowie did story boards for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – how much of his other original artwork is shown?

MD: There’s actually quite a lot of it. There are very, very early sketches of his mother and father. He was a teenager at the beginning of the show but later on, as you say, you see sketches of him storyboarding different music videos, concert staging, some character development, costumes and also when he had this period in Berlin in the late 70s he was actually making paintings, so there’s about three or four paintings and drawings from that period that are in the exhibition too.

PB: It’s interesting that you’ll also be exhibiting album covers because I’m not sure the millennials realize how integral they were to the artist and the audience, both conceptually and artistically, back in the day.

MD: Yeah, and we talk about how there were different versions and how some were censored for the US market versus the European market. In some cases, we show different alternate takes from photo shoots compared to the ones that were finally used and we get a little bit behind the scenes, even showing the original artwork that was often at a much larger scale that was made in preparation for the final printed 12 by 12 inch squares.

PB: Which of David Bowie’s album covers excited you the most?

MD: I would say 'Diamond Dogs', where Bowie appeared as half man and half dog. That one was really incredible, and actually we have the original artwork for that, which is in the show too. It’s really quite a large-scale painting. That’s one of my favourites.

PB: Have you had any personal contact with David Bowie about the exhibit?

MD: That part has been really interesting. He’s been involved in that he allowed us access to all of his archives and gave the green light to the idea of the show,but beyond that he’s really left this up to the Victoria and Albert museum curators to make the selections, create the structure for the exhibition and hasn’t been showing up for the openings or press previews or anything. So, he’s really stepping back and allowing the work and the career speak for itself and not turning this into a media circus around his actual presence, which I think has also been a very smart move on his part
It gives the show a certain amount of objectivity and makes it feel less of a kind of vanity project and so, of course, we’d love for him to show up, but that really hasn’t been part of the way that this has all been structured. We don’t anticipate him being here for the opening or anything like that, but we do hope that, since he lives in New York, Chicago’s not so far…

So, maybe he can just pop over at some point just to check it out.

PB: Was the idea to replicate the Victoria and Albert exhibition?

MD: There are definitely things that I felt would be worth revisiting and altering here at the MCA. I mean, our spaces for one are different than theirs. Our spaces are much more modern and actually in our case we have a much more contiguous flow from gallery to gallery throughout the whole show, whereas there you have to enter one space and then you have to exit and go down the hall and then re-enter another space, so there are things like that that we were able to change and take advantage of. I also thought that a slightly more chronological installation of the show would really allow American audiences to appreciate the pretty dramatic changes from one body of work or one persona to the next, so I’ve unraveled a few of the ideas that they had in London and remixed it in a way so that again you can follow his career trajectory in a little more linear way.

That’s one departure that we made here and, of course, we’ve changed some of the supporting didactic and educational materials to reflect an American point of view, often times giving more explanation about things that were happening in London and which neighborhood of London it was. They took a lot of that for granted at the Victoria and Albert. So, we kind of Americanized the show in that way.

We’ve also given a little bit more prominence to the role of music videos in his career. Those were kind of dealt with in one display in London and elsewhere, and I’ve kind of broken it apart and kind of paired a single key music video, say like ‘Blue Jean’, with the costume that was worn in the video and other supporting material so that you really could, again, get the sense of those milestones, and where the costumes and the video production and everything really come together.

PB: The MCA will be reaching out to the community at large for several months by inviting local musicians to perform Bowie material and by having family workshops inspired by Bowie’s transformative career. Do you feel the 'David Bowie Is' exhibit is creating a link between generations?

MD: Yeah, that’s the other thing that really made sense for us with this exhibition is how Bowie was so far ahead of the curve in terms of ideas about gender identity and sexual preferences and the fluidity therein and how we’re in that kind of that post-gender moment right now in America, and in culture especially, I think, in terms of shows like ‘Orange is the New Black', the TV show, and just how mainstream ideas about transgender identity issues are right now. To think back that here Bowie was testing those boundaries thirty or forty years ago made this show really relevant for us in that way too.

I think a lot of the contemporary collaborators, like the local bands, they were immediately jumping on this opportunity and recognising how continuingly relevant Bowie really is to our moment, so we definitely saw that as a reason to take on this show at this particular moment.

PB; Bowie collaborated quite a bit; with Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, to name a few. Are those projects going to be represented?

MD: Yes. Those are all discussed in different ways in the show. Sometimes there will be photographs of him with those other collaborators. A lot of times it’s discussed in the commentary on the headphones or on Walltech, so we definitely talk about those collaborations a lot throughout the show. In fact, I think that’s one of the things that we love about this is the interdisciplinary nature of his whole career, which again is something we find to be very relevant to how contemporary artists are working today.

PB: What would you consider to be David Bowie’s golden period?

MD: I think it would probably be this period that he spent about a year and a half in Berlin in the late 1970s. That would be an easy period to point to just because he generated three albums at that time, and it was really a pivot point artistically in his career and it was really a pivot point from a personal standpoint – he was trying to kick his addictions during that period, hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and people like that. He came out of that period a different artist in a way and some of the music from that period is incredibly memorable too.

It’s hard because there are so many good periods (Laughs) from the very beginning in 1969. ‘Space Oddity’ is such a great song, but that would be the easiest one to point to because it was such a prolific time period and had such lasting appeal. In fact, some of those cover bands - There are three different bands playing those three different albums in the exhibition and so that was intentional too. At least those bands realised how important and influential those albums so they wanted to take those on. So, it’s the Berlin years that I would really focus on.

PB: You mentioned ‘Space Oddity’ and there’s this one line, "Sitting in a tin can,” which was inspired by the space shuttle and it brings to mind his vivid imagination and the connections he made. Did you feel surprised at any point during your research?

MD: As a more casual fan before getting into this, I didn’t realize the extent of his collaborations with other leaders in their fields, whether it’s William S. Burroughs or Eno or Andy Warhol or Alexander McQueen and the list kind of goes on and on, how consistent he was in seeking out those influencers in a way each during their different periods and I just didn’t recognize how deep that was part of his practice.

PB: So what are you going to do when it’s all up and running and you can relax?

MD: Then I’m really going to enjoy just being a fly in the wall in the gallery and just seeing how people respond to it and especially see how well people might connect Bowie with other things we have going on in the museum, because there are definitely other exhibits that pick up on similar themes but still really within the language of contemporary art. I think that’s going to be fun to test just to see how seamlessly in a way this really fits into our identity, and hopefully how pleasantly surprised people will be that we picked up this show and that it worked so well within the MCA’s previous identity.

PB: Has the show generated a lot of reaction?

MD: We’ve never presold tickets before in our history, and we’ve already sold about 9,000 tickets before the show has even opened. We think a lot of the actual ticket buying will happen the week of, the day of, which is more typical of museum goers, so to have that interest already is really encouraging to us and, again, we’re seeing a lot of people buying them online. This show has given us an opportunity to grow up in terms of how the museum operates and embrace some new technologies, which has been a nice side benefit of all this.

PB: Where will it go after Chicago?

MD: After Chicago, it goes to Paris at The Cite de la Musique.

PB: If David Bowie were here right now, what would you say to him?

MD: I would ask him how he keeps going - how did he keep coming up with hit after hit and breakthrough after breakthrough and I would just try to get at that curiosity that he seems to have in such a high degree.

PB: Thank you.







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