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‘Exhibitionism—The Rolling Stones’ is an exile on lame street

A new exhibit at Navy Pier doesn’t add much to the band’s legacy.

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For around 20 years, beginning in 1963 and ending in 1983 (give or take It's Only Rock and Roll or Undercover, depending on when you think the band totally lost steam), the Rolling Stones were consistently in the running for being the biggest and best rock 'n' roll group on earth. They came close to averaging one full-length release a year, and all of them are at least very good—many are canonical, even ones that were somewhat dismissed at the time (Between the Buttons, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Emotional Rescue; I will defend them all). They wrote enough brilliant singles to fill two box sets, or eight greatest hits collections. Most likely you know this already because, after all, they're the Rolling Stones. And "Exhibitionism—The Rolling Stones," a new traveling exhibit about the band, won't tell you much else.

The obvious inspiration for "Exhibitionism" is "David Bowie Is," another traveling exhibit that came to Chicago (in the latter's case, at the MCA) about a pop-music sensation. Both productions debuted in the UK, are about major rock stars, and feature a substantial contribution of paraphernalia and memorabilia from the subjects. I was initially skeptical of "David Bowie Is" before I saw it—Bowie is an obvious and oversaturated subject—but the show ended up being a landmark for the MCA. "David Bowie Is" demonstrated that Bowie wasn't just a musician but a multimedia artist who also incorporated performance art, video, design, and art theory into his practice. I hoped for a similar experience with "Exhibitionism," but I was appalled by how thoroughly its curators and organizers dropped the ball. It's a blatant cash-in; it should be at Universal Studios, not in the same place where Expo Chicago is held.

Because the exhibit is hosted in a hall at Navy Pier that resembles an airplane hangar, one could argue that "Exhibitionism" isn't aiming to be a museum show like "David Bowie Is." The show doesn't even try to disguise its capitalist foundation; signs at Navy Pier read "Exhibitionism: Delivered by DHL." But "Exhibitionism" debuted at the Saatchi Gallery in London, and even if the curators dismiss the pretense that they're offering an artistic display, the production nonetheless fails completely—it's haphazard, narcissistic, and shallow.

Part of the problem with "Exhibitionism" is that there's no logic to how it's organized and presented. One of the earliest displays is a room that's meant to replicate the flat Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones shared in the band's nascent days; the very next venue is a hall that sums up the band's initial success and their mid-1960s breakout into superstardom. The assumption is that the show proceeds in chronological order, but the very next space hosts a collection of the Stones' guitars and information about their mobile recording studio. No one would learn that Brian Jones was fired (or that he drowned), or that Mick Taylor quit, or even that Ron Wood wasn't always the Stones' guitarist. There's just a bunch of Taylor and Wood's guitars, gleaming behind glass. After that there's a whole section devoted to the history and variation of John Pasche's iconic tongue logo, and at this point it's clear that anyone hoping to actually learn anything about the Stones came to the wrong place.

Some of the Stones' outfits are featured in the exhibit. - COURTESY THE ROLLING STONES AND "EXHIBITIONISM"
  • Courtesy the Rolling Stones and "Exhibitionism"
  • Some of the Stones' outfits are featured in the exhibit.

Instead visitors to "Exhibitionism" can see a random assortment of uncomplicated and familiar relics of the Stones' past: a whole row of expensive and ostentatious suits and outfits, band posters, publicity shots, photos, and a wall of Andy Warhol's famous paintings of Jagger; the only thing missing is the word "Duh" written in giant letters above each item. What's unfortunate is that there are plenty of ways to connect the Stones to artistic innovation. For example, their association with cinema and its history is significant: there's The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, one of the earliest concert films; Sympathy for the Devil, the Stones' collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard; Jagger's role in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance; and especially Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's documentary about Altamont, which is mentioned in "Exhibitionism" but would've benefited from a more in-depth treatment.

More specifically, the Stones were far more experimental as recording artists than credited, an aspect of their career that's entirely overlooked in "Exhibitionism." Take "Street Fighting Man," from the classic 1968 album Beggars Banquet. The song appears to be a simple blues-rock track, with an ineffable quality unique to the Stones, but its background reveals the band as inventive and adventurous musicians. Richards played his guitar parts on a mono cassette recorder, which he'd then overload, producing a kind of cavernous, lo-fi sound. Drummer Charlie Watts replaced his 1965 Ludwig Sky Blue Pearl with a toy drum set called a London Jazz Kit Set, which he also played to tape. The Stones and producer Jimmy Miller then layered exotic instruments on top, including Jones on sitar and tamboura and Traffic's Dave Mason on shehnai. The production of "Street Fighting Man" shows that the Stones' sound wasn't based on some kind of alchemy, but was due to deliberate strategies that produced a specific desired effect. As Richards correctly pointed out in 1971, "Street Fighting Man" was "really an electronic track, up in the realms."

Instead, what "Exhibitionism" offers are ersatz duplicates of material that approximates the Stones' experiences. There's a full-scale copy of a mid-60s recording studio, but little about what the consoles did to craft the sound of the Stones' music. There's a substantial portion of the exhibit that's dedicated to the Stones' stage show, but the reproductions of backstage tech and dressing rooms don't provide any insight into the band at all.

Rather, what "Exhibitionism" manifests is the widely held assumption that the Stones haven't been relevant as artists in decades. They've spent the past 35 years leveraging their legendary decadence and a two-decade hot streak on big-budget tours that have netted the band enormous paydays. And walking through "Exhibitionism" I kept thinking that the exhibit represents all the worst aspects of the baby boomers: idealists and aspiring revolutionaries who upended mainstream culture by spurning its social rituals, whose insouciance curdled into indulgence, the continuation of which required avarice and ego. The intended audience of "Exhibitionism" isn't people who want to learn more about the Stones, but self-congratulating boomers who'll drop excess cash on reliving their glory days, feeling like their cultural cornerstones deserve such gaudy enshrinement.

In his 1980 review of Prince's Dirty Mind, Robert Christgau wrote that "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home." What's the holdup? The Stones have plenty of money, and they certainly don't seem to enjoy each other, let alone playing music together (at least if you judge from last year's schlocky, tedious Blue & Lonesome). Instead they've dragged all their leftovers to Navy Pier for one final cash-in. And their fans get to pay 32 dollars for the privilege.  v

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