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What You’ll See at the MCA’s New David Bowie Exhibit

Chief Curator Michael Darling picks his favorite glam-rock artifacts from the new retrospective.

One of Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto-designed bodysuits, for the 1973 Aladdin Sane tour.   Photo: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario/David Bowie Is

Next Tuesday, America’s first-ever David Bowie retrospective David Bowie Is opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show is a pretty big deal—so much so that Mayor Emanuel declared Tuesday “David Bowie Day” in Chicago.

But the exhibit is also a literal big deal, as in enormous, with more than 400 articles of glam-rock pizzazz plucked from Bowie’s five-decade career. To get a nuts-and-bolts idea of what fans can expect at the show, I asked MCA curator Michael Darling to highlight a few of his favorite Bowie relics on display. Here are his picks.

The robes from Jazzin’ for Blue Jean

Remember that 20-minute short in which a rockstar, played by Bowie, woos the girlfriend of a pedestrian, also played by Bowie? Well, the MCA has rockstar-Bowie’s robes. “It was a really incredible video,” says Darling. “There’s this costume that goes with it where he’s he’s kind of like an Arabian Whirling Dervish.”

Brian Eno’s synthesizer

During Bowie’s three-year stint in Berlin during the late 70s, he worked with ex-Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno on his three-album “Berlin trilogy"—Low“Heroes”, and Lodger. Present on all three albums was Eno’s portable EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer, which, yes, looks exactly like something out of Star Trek. "[The synthesizer] is sitting in this case like a precious artifact,” says Darling. “I don’t know anything about how music is made technically, but I think real Bowie fans are going to geek out on this thing.”

Bowie’s most fragile costume

Of all the stage costumes to survive Bowie’s callisthenic live shows, this one is the most amazing. Worn on television during his 1980 Floor Show, the suit appears to be knit from twine and dental floss. Or, to use Darling’s metaphor: “It’s more or less cobwebs. It’s totally outrageous that it was made and has survived this long.”

Music videos playing on actual TV screens

Why yes, we have entered the era where you must pay a museum to see music videos on television. “I really love a lot of the music videos we have in the show,” says Darling. “The TVs and films are kind of relics. The 1980s, 1990s-era videos, we have them looping on tube monitors, so they feel very period. One that’s really great, for “Boys Keep Swinging,” shows three Bowies dressed in drag as three backups singers. It’s from 1979 and feels so radical and ahead of his time and pretty amazing, that he would go out on a limb like that and dress in drag.”

A virtual concert

For those who simply missed out on Bowie—due to age, locality, taste, or whatever—the MCA’s recreating some of the magic. “We call it ‘the concert moments,’” says Darling. “It’s a big room with five projections on three walls. It’s all kinds of amazing concert footage remixed together into one 30-plus-minute program. There’s one section that’s Bowie performing ‘Sweet Thing’ in Los Angeles in the early 1970s that gives me goose bumps every time. It’s the closest you can get to feeling like you’re at a concert when you’re really inside an art museum.”

David Bowie Is opens Tuesday, September 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago) and runs through January 4, 2015. Timed-admission tickets are available here for $25 and include admission to the entire museum.

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