Who is David Bowie? The reporter sitting next to me asked me that question. She had heard his name, but she didn’t know anything about him. She thought he was a painter (for good reason—she had seen his artworks the night previously). “He does make art,” I said, “And he’s famous for his great music. And tying art and music together. He’s married to Iman, the supermodel.” I was struggling. The reporter, who worked for a local newspaper, generously nodded. “I’m a big fan,” I added. “He was very important to me in high school, and still is important to me today.”
We were at a press preview for David Bowie Is, a museum exhibit covering Bowie’s entire career. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and traveling worldwide, the show opens on Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago—its only U.S. stop.
Throughout the day, I would learn that I wasn’t the only one who had an impulse to describe David Bowie with respect to myself. Geoffrey Marsh, a co-curator of the exhibit and a director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, spoke about Bowie’s “ability to make people feel confident about themselves” during a Q&A with Michael Darling, a curator at the MCA. That sentiment is true for me and for many fans I know: the ability to put in a CD (or a tape, or whatever) and have access to glamour and other-worldly intelligence and romance carried so many through their formative years.
Visiting David Bowie Is means seeing the following artifacts: a mirrored projection of a pitch-perfect 1972 BBC performance of “Starman”; the cocaine spoon Bowie kept in his pocket; a tissue blotted with his lipstick; the makeup chart and stage-set model for the Diamond Dogs tour; Bowie’s 1976 mugshot; the keys to the apartment Bowie shared with Iggy Pop in Berlin in the late 70s; the “Ashes to Ashes” clown costume; a letter from Jim Henson about Labyrinth (“You would be wonderful in this film,” Henson writes); the wallpaper Bowie designed for Laura Ashley in the 90s to raise money for the War Child charity; and a 1995 video in which Bowie explains his Verbasizer—a computer program he created that generates sentences to inspire songwriting.
Bowie sent his archivist to work on the exhibit, but he was not interested in being involved himself. In fact, according to Marsh, the creators of the exhibit had no idea he was going to drop his 2013 album The Next Day within weeks of the London opening (to be fair, Bowie was extraordinarily secretive about that album—even Columbia’s PR department was surprised by it). Bowie has not been to the exhibit, and he may not ever visit, although needless to say he has been invited. It’s generally understood that he is still creating and moving forward, and not interested in the retrospective mindset yet.
Along with being a peek inside Bowie’s extensive archive, the exhibit functions as a tour of about 40 years of art, music and fashion—since Bowie is so famously obsessed with culture and its creation, each part of the exhibit contains artifacts that were influential to him, directly or indirectly. An example of this is Eduardo Paolozzi’s Wittgenstein in New York painting from the “As is When” series (1967) hanging up, with a card that explains how themes in the painting were evoked in Bowie lyrics of the early 70s. The exhibit contextualizes how different characters grew into each other: for example, how Bowie’s childhood idol Little Richard was an influence on Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie’s tendency to plan and dream shines through in many pieces, such as storyboards and detailed character sketches for a movie set in Hunger City that was never ultimately created. In the section about his upbringing in England, an interview clip plays where Bowie explains how he used to buy books he knew were over his head just so he could look deep in public—he has always been like this, we learn.
I never got to catch up with the reporter who didn’t know anything about David Bowie, but someone unfamiliar with Bowie’s work would enjoy this exhibit, even if they’re not the type of person who generally enjoys museums. My only quibble is with the much-lauded audio component: unlike typical museum audio guides, which operate much like a playlist with tracks that correspond clearly to different parts of the exhibit, this sound system operates based on your location. Moving from area to area caused spottiness in the audio, though, and the only way I could tell I had heard all the audio in a given location was that it would start to repeat.
One reporter asked if this pop retrospective was a ploy for museums to attract crowds, comparing it to exhibits on Björk and Norman Rockwell. Another reporter, who had previewed the accompanying book, asked if the show’s fault was an overly worshipful tone. In truth, the exhibit does have a worshipful tone: one text in the show reads, “By publicly forging his own way, David Bowie shows us that we have the freedom to be who and what we want to be.” For fans, though, statements like this will ring true. Bowie’s experimentations with genre, gender, form, and identity have the power to make fans less afraid of the world and—maybe more importantly—less afraid of themselves.
Sarah Harper, a writer based in Chicago, is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota.