“David Bowie Is” Magic in Chicago

This fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is tackling a complicated task: How does an art museum capture a gender-bending, genre-jumping rock n’ roll tour de force?

In its current exhibit, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the MCA tours throughDavid Bowie’s extraordinary career, highlighting more than 400 costumes, liner notes, photographs and set designs from Bowie’s impressive archival collection. “David Bowie Is” takes an in-depth look at how David Bowie’s music has inspired cutting-edge individualism, focusing on his creative processes and collaborative work with artists and designers. For any fan of music, art or David Bowie, this exclusive exhibit is an absolute must-see.

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Photo: Nathan Keay, © The David Bowie Archive. Courtesy of the MCA Chicago.

The exhibition isn’t strictly chronological; while it begins with Bowie’s roots as David Jones in 1947 London, the exhibit follows Bowie’s creative processes, from songwriting, recording and producing, to designing costumes, stage sets and album artwork. Bowie has adopted a number of personas throughout his five decade career, from his most famous creation, the alien-like Ziggy Stardust, to his beloved astronaut Major Tom; each is given careful consideration in the expansive exhibit.

“One of the things I wanted to re-emphasize…was the creation of each of these very distinct characters and persona along the way,” says MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling. “You can really see consistently how [Bowie] kept reinventing himself over and over.”

David Bowie isn’t involved in the creation of this exhibit or its international contemporaries, but his presence is intimately interwoven throughout. Bowie allowed access to Victoria and Albert Museum head curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh into his more than 75,000-item archive, but Bowie himself wanted no part in organizing the living retrospective. “David Bowie is a construction of David Jones,” says Marsh, director of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the V&A. “The archive itself is not about David Jones. It’s solely about this construction. In a way, it’s like he’s been the curator of a museum.”

The exhibit is entirely immersive, using a location-based headset and advanced sound technology by Sennheiser to offer interviews, commentary and music as viewers move through the artifacts. Don’t miss original, handwritten lyric sheets to such beloved tunes as “Heroes,” as well as flamboyant costuming, including the Union Jack coat, designed in collaboration with Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover. Most captivating is the extraordinary 3D audio spectacle concluding the exhibit, weaving Bowie’s best live performances with his defining costumes in a fully in-the-round experience.

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Photo: Nathan Keay, © The David Bowie Archive. Courtesy of the MCA Chicago.

The MCA’s show, on display through January 4, is the only U.S. stop on the exhibition’s international tour. For tickets or more information, visit the MCA’s website.

Top photo by Nathan Keay, © The David Bowie Archive. Courtesy of the MCA Chicago.