I’m approaching the climactic finish of the David Bowie exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The show, which sold out at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last year, has arrived in Chicago for its only stop in the US. I was there as part of a press preview. And this last scene in my journey had been heavily teased.
I’d been wearing a clever pair of location-activated headphones through the exhibit–audiophile-friendly Sennheisers, of course–which whimsically faded in music and narrative as I walked up to Bowie artifacts. But in this moment, the culmination of it all, I walked into a room with a giant video screen where I was supposed to remove the headphones to hear the simulation of a live concert blasting in 9.1 surround sound. Instead, all that played was a generic ambient track. Something was broken or misconfigured, so there was no epic release or grand conclusion.
This sums up the Bowie exhibit well. It’s a grand spectacle that won’t leave you with any revelation to walk out with.
Earlier that day, Geoffrey Marsh, one of the exhibit’s original curators from Victoria & Albert Museum, had waxed poetically about David Bowie–or more accurately, David Jones, the reclusive artist behind the David Bowie persona. (David Bowie, of course, begat all sorts of characters himself, like Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, and the Thin White Duke.)
David Jones has “a degree of obsession with the creation of culture,” he explained. It’s why, as most of us surely never knew, Jones has a full-time archivist that collects and curates a collection of 75,000 David Bowie artifacts. It’s enough to put Beyonce to shame.
“Of course collecting things is not very rock ‘n’ roll,” Marsh said, making himself and the audience laugh. But featuring this collection was a rare opportunity, he insisted. “The number of people who have such a collection is small. And even smaller is the group of people who have the impact on culture to make it worthwhile.”
True to Marsh’s words, the 400 pieces the MCA has of the 75,000 in Jones’s collection are really extraordinary. You’ll see his ridiculously elaborate costumes in the flesh, set up alongside the videos or photoshoots he wore them in–the most remarkable of which is designer Kansai Yamamoto’s full length, ‘Tokyo Pop’ vinyl bodysuit created for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973. It’s like a record grew arms and legs, then bought itself a pair of red platform boots. You’ll see that his inspirations ranged from German Expressionism to Japanese Kabuki theater. You’ll see that his lyrics for Starman carefully plotted on graph paper rather than jotted into a notebook. You’ll see his lighting grids were drawn by hand like punch codes for some 1960s supercomputer. You’ll even see little stick sketches of him holding a giant guitar on a meticulously thought-out stage.
In other words, you’ll see exactly what you’ve seen in Bowie, or Jones, all along: a product of highly poised artistic intent.
But you won’t see much more. For instance, when you enter the portion of the exhibit dedicated to the Diamond Dogs album, you learn that Belgian artist Guy Peellaert produced a portrait for the Diamond Dogs cover–a portrait in which Bowie is a fully nude, fully exposed half-man, half-dog. It’s an evocative slushy of gender, species, and sexuality. And why was it made? What could it mean? Who knows.
Because where the cross-media creative David Jones stops and the artist-mask known as David Bowie starts, the exhibit never really feigns to know, distinguish, or even call into question beyond the most superficial of levels. The show is more a cog in Bowie’s fictional universe than a critical analysis from a third party. So while you’ll walk through Bowie’s career from the ’70s to today through the lens of sketches and costumes, you won’t gain any more nuanced understanding than what you could garner on Wikipedia. You’ll see the story of a kid named David Jones who grew up in a quiet suburb, learned to rock, and made himself into a cultural icon of the process–a Hollywood biopic without any drama.
In a sad irony, the exhibit seems unaware that it is likely its own crown jewel in Bowie’s prized collection of self-generated cultural artifacts–the grandest notch on the fashionably sequined belt of the sexually ambiguous spaceman facade that has managed to hypnotize our culture for four decades and 140 million records without anyone ever understanding how or why.
“What did you think of the Bowie exhibit,” a friend asked as I walked out.
“It’s…a lot of David Bowie,” I responded.
It wasn’t the most intelligent observation, granted. But I do think that sums up my qualms with the exhibit well. There was no revelation hiding inside the deluge of costumes, notes, and music. The exhibit features a lot of David Bowie, but not so much of David Jones.
David Bowie Is begins September 23 at the MCA.