As a teenage David Bowie fan, blown away by a concert on the Serious Moonlight tour, I didn’t know about Bowie’s involvement with avant-garde figures like William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But as the MCA prepares to host David Bowie Is, the first retrospective of his extraordinary career, I’ve come to recognize that he is one of the most pioneering and influential performers of our time.
The MCA is the only US venue for David Bowie Is, which debuted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. When I saw the exhibition there, I found it compelling because it brings together an unprecedented 300-plus objects from the David Bowie Archive, including handwritten lyrics, original costumes, photography, set designs, album artwork, and rare performance material. I suggested we bring the exhibition to the MCA to stretch the MCA’s ideas about art, as well as our audience’s. The museum has also explored parallels between art and music before, in exhibitions like 2007’s Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, and performance has been integral to the MCA’s programming since its very beginning.
It’s difficult and rare for an artist to sustain Bowie’s level of creativity for decades and decades. His peerless understanding of the importance of image cultivation and his appetite for constant reinvention make him a comfortable companion to staples of the MCA Collection and exhibition history such as Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons. And, similar to many artists working today, he has never limited himself to one area of cultural production. The exhibition demonstrates how Bowie’s work has both influenced and been influenced by wider movements in art, design, theater, and contemporary culture, and focuses on his creative processes, shifting style, and collaborations with diverse designers in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theater, and film.
Multimedia installations incorporating advanced sound technology, original animations, continuous audio accompaniment, and video make David Bowie Is an immersive journey through Bowie’s artistic life. I thought it would be exciting to bring this kind of innovative, multisensory experience to the MCA. The exhibition’s overall look and feel recall a rock concert, making it a transporting and much more exciting experience than a typical fashion exhibition, even as more than 60 of Bowie’s costumes go on display, including the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973), and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997). The sculptural and spectacular qualities of the costumes, not to mention the variety of aesthetics they represent, are among the primary attractions of the exhibition.
In an age when a new understanding of the fluidity of gender roles and identities is taking hold, Bowie’s early affronts to the standards of masculinity, including the dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World (1970), and the androgynous characters he developed in the early 1970s such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, can be seen as radical salvos against conservative society. These and many other personae are shown to be more than superficial pranks, amply documented through photography, graphic designs, models of concert sets, and visual excerpts from films and live performances, including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Saturday Night Live (1979), and music videos for songs such as “Boys Keep Swinging” (1979) and “Let’s Dance” (1983). Alongside these are more personal items never unveiled to the public, including storyboards and handwritten set lists and lyrics, as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, which reveal the evolution of his ideas. His chameleonic character transformations throughout the years are central to his contribution to contemporary culture and highly relevant to artists today, ranging from Wu Tsang to Janelle Monae and Lady Gaga. David Bowie Is also reveals how often Bowie reached out to peers both within and outside the music world to challenge himself and keep his creativity flowing, documenting partnerships with artists as varied as Burroughs, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Klaus Nomi, Tony Oursler, and Nicolas Roeg.
Other aspects of Bowie’s life and career, such as his productive period in Berlin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his experimental approaches to songwriting, and his extensive work as a film actor are also explored as compelling stories unto themselves. The culmination of the exhibition is arguably the section devoted to his concert tours, where an engrossing combination of costumes, towering video projections, and a specially designed soundtrack bring home the truly multidisciplinary nature of Bowie’s live performances. After four decades in the public eye, the artist continues to be a relevant force in contemporary culture and music. Chief among his latest efforts was the surprise 2013 album The Next Day, which won many accolades as well as the Brit Award for Best Male Solo Artist.
Music is so important to Chicago that the city provides a great backdrop for David Bowie Is—though we expect the exhibition to reach a national audience. The MCA was built on a multi-disciplinary understanding of creativity from its founding in 1967 and the combination of exhibitions, performances, and programs we present today reflect that wide-angle view of culture. David Bowie Is comfortably fits within that lineage, repatriating a musical innovator back into the territory of cutting-edge visual and performing arts that is his natural home.
*This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Summer 2014).
What memories do you have of David Bowie? Leave a comment below or join the conversation using #DavidBowieIs.
After Analú Maria López’s initial discovery of the 35 mm scan of Keith Haring, the MCA’s library staff dug through old boxes of ephemera to see how deep the MCA’s involvement was in this project. Their findings—an ad in the Reader, a party invitation, a T-shirt, and an MCA magazine listing for a talk highlighting the project—proved how extensive the museum’s involvement in this public art project really was.
In 2009, when I was an intern at the MCA, I came across an image of Keith Haring in the museum’s photo archives. It was a low-resolution 35 mm scan of the artist painting an outdoor mural, with the Chicago lakefront visible in the background. Excited by what this could be, I started researching potential collaborations between Haring and the MCA. Amazingly, I was able to locate three rolls of black-and-white negatives of this project, which was a collaboration between Chicago Public Schools and the MCA, in the museum’s archives.
Haring directed the painting of this massive mural in Chicago’s Grant Park in Spring 1989 from May 17–19. John Gruen’s book, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, tells the story of its making, including how the then mayor Richard M. Daley declared that week “Keith Haring Week.” The project was overseen by a longtime Chicago Public Schools teacher named Irving Zucker. A great admirer of Haring’s art, Zucker approached the artist about doing a project with Chicago youth. When Haring agreed, Zucker won the support of MCA trustee Helyn D. Goldenberg, who helped develop instructional materials and recruit corporate sponsors. The MCA’s education department also sponsored a talk at the MCA in November 1989 titled “The Mural and Large-Scale Painting from Pollock to Haring” in association with Haring’s project.
The project was a collaboration between Haring and more than 450 students from Chicago public schools such as Wells Academy and Benito Juarez, to name just a few. For their work, the students received compensation through the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. The 520-foot mural consisted of several panels on which Haring painted a series of black-outlined figures that were then filled in by the students, with a few rules from Haring: be as creative inside the shape as possible, and do not use the same color as the person next to you.
“Keith Haring Week” garnered quite a bit of media coverage, including a short documentary narrated by Dennis Hopper, Off the Wall: Keith and the Kids, which was partially sponsored by Martin Lawrence Limited Editions and aired on WTTW-TV. Mary Richardson, librarian at the MCA, also discovered an original T-shirt created for the event, as well as a flyer invitation for an after-party at Metro Chicago.
The mural was eventually moved, and today only a portion of it can be seen hung on the walls of the walkway connecting the Orange Line train to Midway International Airport.
As one of the most visible outreach programs in the museum’s history, it stands as a testament to the MCA’s integral role in promoting arts in the Chicago community as well as to Haring’s longtime commitment to arts education. Sadly, on February 16, 1990, just under a year after creating this mural, Keith Haring passed away in New York City.
“Theme Song For An Exhibition” came into being while I was making an exhibition, for Museo MADRE in Naples, based on a television show about a fictional family. Since most TV shows open with theme music, I thought my TV show might have one as well. The idea felt like a violation—in a good way—which, I suppose, meant it felt contemporary. So many of us now organize our pleasures horizontally. Art isn’t better than entertainment just because it’s art. (A good entertainer makes more of a contribution than a bad artist!) We accept that each form gives us access to different kinds of pleasure. With art and entertainment more equivalent than in the past, it’s become easier to bridge the gap between the two contexts. I’d been doing it for decades. Currently I use art institutions to produce and distribute work in popular culture formats that the popular culture itself isn’t producing.
But why limit a theme song to just this one exhibition? What if, somewhere down the line, I wanted to apply it to another exhibition? Why not write a song that would be more all-purpose—applicable to any exhibition, by anyone, at any venue? I poked about Milwaukee for musicians who might be sympathetic to the project, and the two musicians who volunteered, Richard Galling and Evan Gruzis, were also painters, for whom a song about this subject naturally had meaning. Richard and Evan had collaborated musically many times so they’d already developed a dialogue, and after I’d voiced a few musical preferences, our song quickly took shape. Evan asked his wife Nicole Rogers to handle the lead vocals, which she delivered with just the right touch of dispassion. It was my first exposure to the song-recording process and I was amazed to observe people creating a listenable tune on the spot—a talent simply not in my quiver.* The George Martin role felt a good fit, though! I certainly could see the appeal of working in the song form.
We’re releasing “Theme Song . . .” through a consortium of ten art institutions in the United States and Europe, from Los Angeles to Copenhagen. Its distribution, in fact, is part of the work. Since digital technology makes it possible to distribute information in new ways, why not “wire together” a group of museums and have them all release the same work at the same time? Breaking the structural relationships between contexts and re-setting them is something I’ve done many times, in one way or another, since making Talent 30 years ago. I’m applying art museums to my own cultural goals. Why not? “Take the culture where you want it to go,” as our song says. However the result may perform culturally—that’s my art.
*”The Mainstream,” a song featured in my 2002 Ice Cream Social TV Pilot for the Sundance Channel, was an earlier foray into pop. I contributed only the lyrics, however, and had no hand in shaping the song.
This past summer, the MCA met individually with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Paul Lazar to talk about Man in a Case. The following compilation is distilled from those conversations.
MCA: How did you come to decide on collaborating?
Paul Lazar: My company, Big Dance, had worked a lot at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and Misha is very aware of what’s happening in the contemporary theater and dance world. He pleasantly startled us when he said he would like to work with us. We threw around various ideas, but he was the one who introduced us to the idea of an adaptation of these two Chekhov stories: “The Man in a Case” and “About Love.” When you think oh, well, someone wants to act Chekhov you think Three Sisters or one of the plays. But wisely, Misha was like, “Those—you know they’re there. Those monolithic things are there. But this is a different way into Chekhov.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov: Like all experimental small groups, Big Dance Theater is pushing the envelope, incorporating movement in music, sound, and video, bringing that to the table. That’s why I think I know this choice was right because it opens—and their participation opens—a lot of doors to eliminate the socio-political aspect of it, to bring it to the ground. Because the stories were written in a very turbulent time, at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia. What unites them, in my view, is that they’re both stories about love, from very different perspectives, where very different dynamics are involved. It’s about two aspects of love if you want, both of them kind of tragic, but both of them highly recognizable, in my opinion, for modern audiences.
MCA: What drew you to Chekhov’s short stories as material?
MB: You know I grew up in the post–World War II system, and Chekhov is the pride of Russian culture as a writer. And not just Russian culture. You know the name of Anton Chekhov resonates with every serious director. Everyone has tried one way or another at some point in their careers to take a crack at the plays, let’s say The Seagull or Three Sisters, Cherry Orchard, etc., to some interpretations of short stories. And it’s never easy, because some language is very universal even with the translations.
MCA: How did you approach the heart of the story visually and narratively?
PL: It is true in the case of both stories that they are linear and they are narrative. And certainly there’s a decent amount of our work that would be described as marginally narrative or perhaps at times even nonnarrative. So that is a difference. But we very much hew to the Chekhovian sequence of events, where we take advantage of movement, and the staging styles that are characteristic of our company are that these in fact are prose pieces that move through various locations. This is paradoxical, but they require a certain level of abstraction in order to maintain their realism.
There are two other elements that are key to the way we reconcile Chekhovian prose with our theater. One is that Peter Ksander, who made our set, does this sort of brilliant and thrilling design—simple, bold strokes, is the best way I could describe it. The other thing is that Jeff Larson is our video person, and we use video as a way of bringing the Chekhovian characters that are ancillary to the story into the environment.
MCA: How did your collaboration work, in practical terms?
MB: I’m coproducing this. I brought this project together. I brought this team together. Usually with these kinds of productions you spend weeks and weeks on stage with the costumes and set and all the elements, and a few weeks at least with the previews. We didn’t have this luxury. We ran for a few weeks at the Hartford Stage and just got better and better, in my view. We are looking forward to performing it throughout the United States, from Washington to Chicago to California to Boston. It should keep getting better and better for all of us.
Annie-B and Paul and all of our team were involved in research, of not just the particular stories and literal legacy of an author, but his life and the atmosphere at that time in Tsarist Russia. As I said, it was a turbulent time. Student protests about the very conservative regime at that time in Russia. Chekhov was a kind of a dissident writer, but like any great artist, he sort of reflected the political atmosphere at that time, and what really happened in that society. There are a lot of bridges throughout the centuries that resonate, the kind of disagreements between the conservative agenda and liberal agenda, very much so like the present day. Certain elements are highly recognizable.
The universal aspects of Chekhov the writer create an opportunity for a director. They wouldn’t take this project if it wasn’t suitable. They took this chance, because they are incorporating some elements from Three Sisters and a couple of things from his letters. There are some elements brought in from other works by Chekhov. Not many, but a few new elements are sort of injected into their adaptation of these two short stories.
MCA: What has it been like to direct Baryshnikov in this production?
PL: It’s been a very dynamic collaboration, because Misha has a real interest in theater, not as spectator, but as a participant. Baryshnikov is someone who appropriately has an international stature, and yet he’s a very nuts-and-bolts guy when it comes to getting your ass on stage. It’s a place he’s familiar with; it’s a place he’s comfortable. So when you talk about collaborating with him, he’s in the mix, like all the other players. He’s accepting of the fact that this was him with a company.
Also, Misha has a legendary work ethic, which is important in all kinds of theater, but perhaps particularly with what we do because all of it is choreographed, all of it’s a dance of a kind. He’s somebody who’s got the capacity to work a moment until the steps are down, to the point where they can be done and infused with the spontaneity or a seeming spontaneity that is necessary.
The MCA Stage season goes on sale next Tuesday, July 8. Check out the entire lineup of groundbreaking work in theater, dance, and music here.
Internationally renowned artist Takashi Murakami recently traveled to Chicago to screen his film Jellyfish Eyes to a very enthusiastic audience that packed the Edlis Neeson Theater to capacity with many hopeful fans waiting outside for any available seats. Murakami showed up sporting some fashions inspired by his art: his shirt and vest were embroidered with his signature Jellyfish Eye designs, and his headgear riffs on a character from the movie as well. He was very generous with his fans, taking time to pose with everyone who wished to take a picture with him, as you see below.
Jellyfish Eyes centers around the appearance of mysterious creatures, called F.R.I.E.N.D.s, whose motivations may or may not be benevolent. We took a cue from Murakami himself who often appears in clothing styles inspired by his artwork and film, and asked our audience to attend the film with their childhood stuffed F.R.I.E.N.D.s—aka their stuffed animals—for a group photo with Murakami.
If you couldn’t attend the movie you can still view the music video for the theme song to the movie, Last Night, Good Night, as remixed by musician Pharrell Williams.
We are proud to launch a new MCA blog, MCA DNA. While our previous blogs have been focused on specific topics or projects, MCA DNA will be comprehensive and expansive, sparking conversations about art and culture today.
The blog’s title is borrowed from our ongoing, collection-based exhibition series, MCA DNA. Just as the strands of DNA intertwine to form the backbone of a living organism, so will the stories of our exhibitions, artworks, staff, and community combine here to provide a sense of the MCA as a complex organism, full of practices, activities, and programs with narratives that may surprise you. And just as DNA required research and testing to discover, we too will use the blog to explore different kinds of posts, media, and contributors—we see MCA DNA as an experimental, multimedia platform for many voices and subjects.
In upcoming posts, you’ll hear from archivists and artists, librarians and preparators, educators and security staff—writers from across the museum. We’ll gather great stories from the MCA’s past along with previews of future exhibitions and programs. As an audience-engaged and artist-activated platform, the blog will feature many voices and describe the diverse projects of our community’s artists.
We are especially proud that many artists who exhibit in our galleries become members of the MCA family—returning repeatedly to exhibit or to participate in MCA programs. Recently, Lilli Carré, whose collaborations with the museum date back to 2009, was featured in a 2014 BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works solo exhibition. She and her husband, Alexander Stewart, also led a popular Family Day animation workshop in April, and work from that event is featured in a post from one of our educators.
We’re eager to hear what you think, know what you want to think about, and even what you have to say yourselves. So please leave a comment below or Tweet us @mcachicago. Pitch us a story or contact our Blog manager Abraham Ritchie if you are interested in writing for us. We’ll do our best to track comments and respond to your requests in upcoming posts.
If you attended the MCA’s 2012 exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, you probably saw Gran Fury’s 12-foot-long poster Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989). Countering misconceptions of HIV transmission, it depicts two same-sex couples (and one opposite-sex couple) kissing under the titular phrase.
Provocative for its time, the work debuted in Chicago in 1990 on 60 CTA buses and 25 “L” stations for one month. Some of the posters were defaced, and the Illinois State Legislature even considered banning their display entirely.
If you lived through the 1980s, and the decades before that, you know what a historic moment it was when same-sex marriage was legalized in Illinois on November 20, 2013. You understand that it signifies real progress: We as a society—though not yet as a nation—have moved from a time when Gran Fury’s work was notorious to a time when the MCA ran the exact same ad on CTA buses in 2012 and received positive and appreciative feedback through its social media channels. We’re seeing our friends and relatives who have long been devoted to each other finally recognized by the state and by the law. This is progress. This should be marked. And this should most certainly be celebrated.
When Governor Pat Quinn signed SB10 last fall, the only question for the MCA wasn’t whether to celebrate, but how to celebrate this momentous occasion. A group of staff members who are passionate about gay rights and marriage equality met to brainstorm ways the museum could mark this progress with the LGBTIQ community. The idea that appealed the most to us was the most ambitious: open the museum for an entire day of marriages—for free. When we approached Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn with this proposal, her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
On June 2, the MCA worked with Equality Illinois—along with other generous sponsors who are providing complimentary photography, decor, and other services—to host 15 couples who were more than ready to, as the Beyoncé song goes, “put a ring on it.”
The MCA hosts weddings all year long and its staff is delighted to be able to host weddings for all couples at last. Congratulations to all of the couples throughout Illinois—and the United States—who have worked toward equality and who are finally seeing their efforts realized.
*This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Summer 2014).
Check out the Chicago Sun-Times‘ highlight of the event here.