Still rebuilding after the devastating German air raids of World War II, Britain's mood in 1947 was desolate. Rationing was still in force; meat, potatoes and even electricity were cut. The London streets that had taken the full force of Hitler's V1 and V2 rockets existed as parallel lines of rubble. To make matters worse, January of that year heralded one of the most devastating winters in the country's history. In his biography entitled Starman, author Paul Trinka described the South London suburb of Brixton at the time as "cold, damp and soot-blackened." It looked "especially dystopian," he wrote.
It was into this dystopia that David Robert Jones was born Jan. 8, 1947. His country was in dire need of someone to demonstrate how anything was possible through the limitless creativity contained within the human imagination. Jones became determinedas he put it in a 2002 interview in GQ"to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in" and so "move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go. I realized from the beginning that you could actually affect the way people saw things in quite a major way."
That contribution was the creation of David Bowiean artist in a constant state of reinvention whose body of work spans over a half a century and whose influence across an array of disciplines from music to film has been described by mfany music journalists as "transformative." In a 2013 article in Rolling Stone, writer Simon Price said "I think perhaps unlike any other pop artist, David Bowie has the power to change lives."
In March last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum ( V&A ) in London premiered "David Bowie Is"offering audiences an unparalleled, totally immersive journey through Bowie's artistry and the world and times in which he created it. The exhibit drew unprecedented numbers of people. Wearing state-of-the-art headphones that allowed them to experience Bowie's performances and still talk with each other, visitors pored over 300 objects from the legendary bodysuits worn by Ziggy Stardust, to an intimate and exclusive look at Bowie's handwritten lyrics, sketches, diary entries and musical scores.
On Sept. 23, "David Bowie Is" will open at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicagothe only U.S. city on its world tour.
Geoffrey Marsh is director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the V&A. He and colleague Victoria Broackes were co-curators of the exhibitionan artistic risk given the critical backlash regarding the prestigious museum's 2007 presentation of stage costumes worn by pop star Kylie Minogue. "Come and look at Kylie's pants," was critic Euan Ferguson's headline in the British Newspaper The Observer. "The V&A's face remains intact, but a little bit of its soul has been consumed by this trash," he wrote.
Despite Ferguson's opinion, a substantial number of people turned up for a look at Kylie's pants. "Many of them had never been to the V&A before," Marsh told Windy City Times. "So clearly there was an interest in popular culture." The museum followed the success of "Kylie: The Exhibition" with "The Story of the Supremes"a collection provided by founding member Mary Wilson that examined the group's role in changing racial perceptions during the American civil rights movement. In 2011, "The House of Annie Lennox" explored the challenges of being a woman in the music business. The genesis of "David Bowie Is" was envisioned that same year when Marsh and Broackes were invited to New York to view a collection of Bowie memorabilia.
"It was extraordinary," Marsh said. "And most of it was in fantastic condition given that a lot of performance stuff tends to be battered to bits." The curator gave Marsh and Broackes his blessing to borrow whatever they liked. Despite a history of controlling every step in the creative process down to the most finite detail of his album cover art, Bowie himself was absent from the making of an exhibit drawn from his own work. "We were told 'David's not going to get involved'," Marsh said. "That seemed very curious because usually when you deal with artists they are there hanging over you. But one of the things one realizes is that David keeps an air of mystery about him."
So, like the rest of the world, Marsh and Broackes had no idea thatduring the painstaking two years they spent designing the exhibitionthe artist was quietly working on his first studio album in nearly a decade. "The Next Day" was released in the same month the exhibit opened. Both were critical and commercial hits. "We were as surprised as everyone else when the album came out," Marsh asserted. "We never thought we were part of a bigger plan."
Marsh stressed that the exhibition is not a study of the personal life of David Robert Jones. "It's about the creation of David Bowie," he explained. "Lots of people say they've met David Bowie as if he's a real person but he isn't. That's what's so brilliant about the illusion. It's a character he constructed who also assumed a lot of other characters over the past 50 years. A lot of journalists look at him as a musician and songwriter, but actually he's a theatrical performer. That's why so many people in the rock business were slightly distrustful of him."
There is no mystery about the devastating effect Bowie had on a world built around convention. In July 1972, Ziggy Stardust appeared on the BBC's Top of the Pops performing "Starman." In his 2012 book When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World, out gay author/journalist Dylan Jones recalled the moment the camera focused on a bright blue guitar played by a man dressed head to foot in a skin-tight kaleidoscope of color. "For me and for the many other innocents who saw Bowie perform that night," Jones wrote, "the world we were shown was transgressive: sexual androgyny, impious glam rock, the edge of all we knew. It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative. For me, and for those like me, it felt like the future had finally arrived."
The Ziggy Stardust Tour that began in 1972 further showcased the sexual fluidity of the character through outfits designed by Kansai Yamamoto such as the unforgettable, billowing black and white "Rites of Spring" or the multicolored body stocking replete with turquoise feather boa. Many of those original outfits can be seen at "David Bowie Is."
Speculation about Bowie's own sexuality was a constant in the media. A 2002 television interview with British personality Jonathan Ross yielded quite a few laughs on the subject but nothing more conclusive than Bowie's statement: "I was incredibly promiscuous and I think we'll leave it at that."
Marsh said he believes, ultimately, Bowie's message to the world is contained within his persona and work. "Bowie was very apolitical," Marsh stated. "But what he did say and still says is 'Be yourself.' And often that's the most subversive thing you can do."
He added that Bowie is many different things depending on the individual. That sentiment was reflected in the reactions of visitors to the V&A exhibit. "People were seeing two exhibitionsthe one about Bowie and one about their lives." Marsh said. "Most people have a Bowie album, or have danced to David's music and therefore they were looking at David and they were looking at themselves. It was important for them to be a part of it."
Both Marsh and Broackes had always planned to tour "David Bowie Is" when it closed following one of the most successful runs in the V&A's 161-year history and they were inundated with requests from museums in cities spanning the globe. In terms of the United States, Marsh said that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was selected because its officials asked first.
Michael Darling is the chief curator of the MCA. "I first read an announcement about it in early 2013," he told Windy City Times. "Already, there was some buzz building about it in London and we got on the phone with the folks at the Victoria and Albert. We sensed that this was a show that could capture the imagination of a broad audience. We were happily surprised that we were one of the first to call and able to cement our place in the tour."
Darling noted that, unlike previous venues, the MCA has the capacity to house the exhibition in a single continuous space. "Once you go in, you're along for the ride all the way," he said. "The immersion is palpable. There is low light in most of the show. There are objects and moving imagery everywhere you go and of course you are wearing headphones that provide a soundtrack all the way through."
One significant difference from the London presentation is the timeline sequence of the exhibit at the MCA. Looking at Bowie's career from a contemporary art perspective, Darling said that decision was motivated by Bowie's own capacity for reinvention. "The dramatic shifts of persona and character throughout his career are among his most fascinating aspects," Darling said. "It shows so much courage and bravery and a willingness to never rest on his laurels. So I thought if we could put [the exhibit] in a more chronological order and group together all of the various objects that relate to each of those periods, those shifts would become even more dramatic to people and show just how radical he was."
Much like Marsh and Broackes, Darling is resistant to term "David Bowie Is" as a retrospective. "One thing that I have come to understand is that the idea's kind of foreign to Bowie himself," Darling said. "He's somebody who doesn't like to look back and once something is done and finished, he moves onto the next thing. We're not presenting the exhibit in a way that makes you dwell on the past but to see his work as stepping stones forward."
Marsh said he believes Bowie was and still is powered by relentless curiosity, exploring art and literature from his early years and then blending and remodeling that knowledge into the creations that can be viewed, listened to and lived in "David Bowie Is"
"I searched for form and land," Bowie sang in 1970. "For years and years I roamed, I gazed a gazely stare."
Marsh and Broackes hope that the gazely stares of those who experience the ingenuity and vision that formed every piece in "David Bowie Is" will help put them inside the head of the character of Bowieone born from a boring dystopia who became the man who sold the world on endless possibility.
For more information and for tickets, visit http://www2.mcachicago.org/exhibition/david-bowie-is/.
A documentary film of the groundbreaking exhibition David Bowie is, created by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, will be screened Sept. 23 to coincide with the exhibition opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA). Chicago, IL
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