STREETERVILLE — "David Bowie Is" above all an artistic commodity.
The Museum of Contemporary Art becomes the only U.S. institution to show the "David Bowie Is" exhibit next week, when it opens on Tuesday for a run extending into next year. It shows all the care Bowie took and the artistic influences he drew upon to create his various rock and roll personae, from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and beyond.
"He was actually working it all out way before other people," said Geoffrey Marsh, curator of the original exhibit that opened a year ago at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, at a media preview Friday.
MCA curator Michael Darling insisted that it's a perfect fit for the museum, in that it examines Bowie's "interdisciplinary" approach, incorporating music, performance, theater, photography, video and fashion. "It's not just a show about a rock star," he said.
Yet, just as Bowie excelled at creating his own image as a self-constructed artist — influenced by the evolution of the Beatles, while contrived to the point where he's not so far removed from an Andy Warhol — the museum excels in trafficking in those same images.
Darling said there has been "an enormous response already," with more than 10,000 advance tickets sold, and some of the programs planned around the exhibit already selling out.
Bowie the commodity is on display in the exhibit, but he's also available in the companion gift shop. There are the expected Bowie refrigerator magnets and Aladdin Sane coffee mugs, but also videos, movies, CDs and dozens of what Marsh said are the 60 books out on Bowie right now.
Then there are guitar-shaped cutting boards, kitchen spoons and spatulas, as well as a "Starstruck Photo Display" in which you can place your picture in a frame in front of a set of kowtowing fans.
Some of the gear has a tangential connection with Bowie, such as bangles and down jackets with bugeye-goggle hoodies.
Meanwhile, the Wolfgang Puck cafe at the MCA will be offering Bowie-esque cocktails like the Young American (vanilla vodka, Monin violet syrup, ginger ale and candied violet), as well as menu items like the Thin White Duke (flatbread with fontina and mozzarella cheese, confit garlic, roasted tomatoes, cracked pepper and arugula salad) and the Cat People (tuna tartare, sesame chips, ponzu and a deviled quail egg).
Yet it all makes a certain amount of sense, in the context of Bowie as artist and the MCA as art museum.
And, with the help of sponsor Sennheiser, the headphone and speaker company, Darling said it brings music into the museum like never before.
All museumgoers walk around like kids with their iPhones, with headphones linked automatically to whatever display one is standing in front of, from Bowie's early '70s appearances on the BBC's "Top of the Pops" to his later "Ashes to Ashes" video.
Strolling throught the exhibit rooms, one is apt to suddenly hear a starchy British commentator saying, "It is a sign of the times that a man with a painted face and lipstick should inspire adoration from adolescent girls."
Then there's a final concert room, with an "immersive" three-dimensional sound system.
Marsh said the MCA got the rights to the exhibit out of simple, Chicago hard work. "The short answer to why the exhibit's here is Michael phoned up and asked," he added.
The exhibit shows "what sort of goes on in Bowie's head," Marsh added, calling the prevailing atmosphere "respectful" because "I actually do respect what he's achieved."
Darling said it finds Bowie "loosening the boundaries of art." To meet the American audience halfway, he trimmed some of the material on Bowie's growing up in postwar Britain, and organized the rest more chronologically.
Marsh said Bowie had no role in creating the exhibit, except to give the curators access to his full-time archivist, explaining that Bowie's attitude is "don't get stuck in the past." Thus, Marsh added, he isn't likely to show up for the exhibit, although one can never rule it out.
Yet Darling added that the exhibit shows how Bowie is "constantly surprising us, as well as himself," and his art remains surprising even encased in the amber of an art museum like the MCA.
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