David Bowie is

ARTS, Music, Visual Arts
img_davidbowieisA look back at the first international retrospective of David Bowie’s multifaceted career; plus, viewing notes from the Art Institute of Chicago.

David Bowie is
July 16-November 1, ACMI

Last year, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art played host to David Bowie is. The dynamic city was the lone USA stop for this touring exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Thorough and immersive, David Bowie is does the man justice, and is currently at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image until November.

The 83,000 people who saw Bowie’s 1983 Auckland concert set a (per capita) world record, I learn. Advanced sound technology means your headset intuits salient audio wherever you roam on this textured, full-floor exploration of Bowie’s polymath journey through music, literature, theatre, art, design and fashion. In the MCA’s reflective spaces, dozens of items, including handwritten lyrics, photos, stage designs, and album artwork, allow contemplation.

Bowie’s striking performance outfits rub shoulders with installations of music videos, a final room of live performance highlights, and a screening area with clips from Bowie films like Basquiat, where he memorably embodied Andy Warhol, Nicolas Roeg’s daring sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Japan’s influence on Bowie, and Bowie’s influence on Japan, is very interesting.

“I lived a lot in my imagination. It was a real effort being a social animal,” Bowie notes the bedroom-based reading and other solitary obsessions he invested his time on before unleashing the singular ‘Space Oddity’. Major Tom’s much heard song/video resonates and transfixes afresh here.

Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s rock god persona, jibes excessive fans in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, who literally eviscerate him. Rolling Stone got a funny explanation from Bowie: “The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.”

Other crisp highlights in gallery situ include ‘Let’s Dance, Heroes’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’, ‘Diamond Dogs’, and ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. Yet again on my Northern travels, I wish I could spend more time here.

Just when we thought he was out, Bowie the album-releaser pulled us back in during 2013, releasing a good, elder statesman album The Next Day. His influence ain’t over yet.

I left with a handsome catalogue, fine for reflecting on at home with those great old songs playing, thinking anew on the musician who inspires artists as varied as Tupac Shakur and Chris Hadfield.

img_penetrablechicagoThe MCA is just one of many architecturally compelling Chicago buildings. Chicago’s skyline by boat tour impresses: the heights, shapes, colours, and materials; the interplay of light, shadow, and texture between the buildings; the forms and functions; the memories from movies like The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger’s Joker raids Gotham National Bank.

Architect Renzo Piano’s gorgeous modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago sits by picturesque Millennium Park’s autumnal reds, yellows, and greens. Highlights include sensuous Matisses and Bonnards, rigorous Richters, Picasso’s blue masterpiece The Old Guitarist, and Felixmüller’s moving The Death of the Poet, Walter Rheiner. Martin Puryear’s materiality, David Wojnarowicz’s dying politics, and Leon Golub in general offer more recent lingering work and ideas. Then there’s Jesús Rafael Soto’s soothing and stirring Pénétrable de Chicago, a tactile and kinetic installation about perception.

As with the Black Ensemble Theatre’s At Last: A Tribute to Etta James and the blues music at Kingston Mines—not to mention Chicago’s unfairly criticised President Obama—Southside artist Archibald Motley’s painting Nightlife captures the irrepressible vitality of black American culture.

David Bowie Is
Installation View
MCA Chicago
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Jesús Rafael Soto
Pénétrable de Chicago, 1971
Installation View
Art Institute of Chicago

Filed under: ARTS, Music, Visual Arts


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.