By Kurt Wolff
Of course there is a massive range of impressive visual material to grab your attention, too, from vintage costumes to handwritten lyrics, photographs and video footage, among other rare and often very personal items. But it’s the sonic portion of this exhibit — interview clips, concert footage and of course songs, lots of songs — that fills your ears as you walk from room to jam-packed room, doing so effortlessly via an innovative audio player and headphones. The audio acts as your guide, turning your average gallery-going stroll into an fully immersive experience.
Chicago is the only U.S. stop for “David Bowie Is,” a massive retrospective of David Bowie‘s life and 50-plus-year artistic career that debuted last year at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Originally co-curated by the V&A’s Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh (the MCA exhibit was overseen by MCA curator Michael Darling), it features hundreds of artifacts from Bowie’s personal archive, as well as an accompanying sound experience developed by German audio company Sennheiser, which is also a co-sponsor of the exhibit.
The majority of that sound experience comes via an innovative audio tour that kicks in automatically as you step toward each relevant display. Move in front of one display, for instance, and you hear Bowie—dressed in a knockout turquoise leather suit—performing “Life on Mars” in a 1974 music video; step 15 or 20 feet onward, facing a different display, and the audio track changes to something entirely different, the sound never getting mixed up or overlapping. In terms of technology alone it’s kind of amazing; and it’s great, too, that once you start the tour you don’t have to think about it. The audio portion just happens.
Content wise the audio is vital to the exhibit, and it remains fantastic all the way through, from early interview segments through music clips (“Space Oddity,” “Starman,” his innovative “Ashes to Ashes” music video) on up to an interview with producer Tony Visconti about Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day.
The crown jewel of the exhibit’s audio experience, though, comes at the very end, when you step inside a large room and are immersed in a sensational video concert experience. All four walls feature video panels that reach some 15 feet toward the ceiling, while towering speakers dish out the accompanying audio utilizing a new system Sennheiser is calling “3D audio” that more than fills the space with superb sound. No matter how many times you’ve heard radio staple “The Jean Genie,” the version here—from Top of the Pops in 1973 and featuring close-up shots of Bowie in long hair and dangling earring—is mind-blowing. It’s for good reason there are benches in this room, so patrons can sit down to take it all in.
But that’s getting ahead of things—way ahead. The exhibit, in fact, is breathtaking in its details and depth. I mean, we all know Bowie is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s major musical innovators, but good God, the swirl of influences, ideas and creative shifts that took place in the 1970s alone is mind-boggling. And with the release of The Next Day (and its deliberately thought-provoking cover art) last year, and rumors of more new music on the horizon, it’s clear he’s still active and looking ahead. The exhibit, after all, is called “David Bowie Is”—a deliberate move to emphasize his continual forward motion and planting in the present, not the past. However incredible that past might have been.
Though the rooms are organized thematically (collaborations, masks, words, etc.), the exhibit does begin chronologically. We get information on his suburban childhood, his parents and the first hints at his music career. There is early artwork, references to key influences (an inspirational photo of Little Richard, an early single by Lonnie Donegan), his initial attempts at self promotion and a cool three-dimensional diorama (the first of several, and one of the innovative ways the exhibit unfolds the Bowie experience) that comes alive with audio and video. There’s a letter from his manager at the time, announcing his name change from Davie Jones to David Bowie.
The latter becomes not just his stage name but a vehicle allowing him to play around with a rotating cast of personalities. This process of character development and constant forward-focus is a vital thread running through the entire “David Bowie Is” exhibit.