'Sensation' art exhibit goes online

Rock star and art collector David Bowie will display all 141 of the controversial works on his Website starting Saturday.

David Bowie, rock star extraordinaire, has joined the battle over the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit that has New York politicians, constitutional lawyers and art connoisseurs in an uproar. Bowie, who ranks among the world's top art collectors, will bring the much ballyhooed show to the Internet as early as Saturday, the day the show opens at the more than 100-year-old museum. He intends to display all 141 of its works on his Web site, www.davidbowie.com.

Art reproductions can't substitute for the real thing -- "Sensations: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection" has a life-size shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde, for example -- but reproductions on the Web can give a strong hint of the original. The world at large will also get a peek at photographs and biographies of the artists, along with Real Audio commentary on the works from Bowie, who also narrates the audio tour at the museum.

The online display of "Sensation" is not a Johnny-come-lately effort to support the Brooklyn show. Nor is it an attempt by a world-famous celebrity to exploit a national controversy. The show has been attacked by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Cardinal John O'Connor, primarily for a picture showing the Virgin Mary flecked with elephant dung.

Bowie, who was named among the world's top 200 art collectors this summer by ARTnews magazine, stepped forward to support the exhibit in April, after reading about it in the New York Times long before the controversy's recent explosion in the media.

In for a shock
The article by Times reporter Carol Vogel said: "Visitors to the Brooklyn Museum of Art this fall may be in for a shock. Rather than sun-dappled Impressionist landscapes or forthright Rodin bronzes, its classical galleries will be filled with work by young British artists who have made a worldwide reputation creating art that disturbs and outrages."

Within days of that article, according to a museum spokeswoman, one of Bowie's associates phoned the museum and said the musician wanted to be involved with the exhibit. UltraStar, the Internet company Bowie helped found, acquired the rights to the virtual art exhibit a few months later, in the summer.

Giuliani, who has described the show as "sick," has threatened to cut off $7 million in city funds, about 30 percent of the museum's annual budget. The museum's lawyer, noted First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, has filed a lawsuit to force the city to continue the funding.

The British rock star's early interest in the exhibit was a boon to the museum. "It's just a dream come true to have David Bowie help promote one of your exhibitions," said Sally Williams, the museum's public relations director. Bowie's keen interest in contemporary art is well-known among collectors, she said.

A tribute to art
The designer of the "Sensation" Web pages, Manhattan-based Howard Jackowitz, said the display will be typical of an online museum site. It will be organized by artist, with thumbnail images of the artwork that can be clicked for larger views.

"We have basically put up the equivalent of a small Web site every day for a year," Jackowitz says of davidbowie.com. "The most interesting thing about the site is that David Bowie himself contributes content."

Bowie posts personal journals on the site and feeds in photographs taken with the digital camera he carries wherever he goes. His contributions to the "Sensation" Web display include his commentary on the artists and their work. Some who have heard his audio comments say they are a calm contrast to the sensational descriptions in the media.

Moreover, on the Web site, the works of Chris Ofili -- who created the "Virgin Mary" collage that has drawn the worst criticism -- are not described as offensive at all. Instead, they are called "playful in realization, brash in materials." The description says further, "they have a patched-together, homemade look that allows a gentle romantic spirit to animate the cultural mix of their making."

Although the text also explains that Ofili hit upon the idea of using elephant dung on his paintings in Zimbabwe, where elephant dung can be a spiritual symbol, the Web site will not contain detailed explanatory text about individual works.

"The pieces will stand on their own," Web site designer Jackowitz said.

As of Friday afternoon, the Brooklyn Museum's public relations director hadn't seen the exhibit's Web site. But she hasn't had much time for it. The museum has been so overrun with calls about "Sensation" from the press and public, Williams has found herself "at midnight in bed" listening to voicemail messages. Members of the BowieNet Internet service provider were expected to be able to view the virtual show 12 hours ahead of the public, beginning Friday at 10 p.m. ET.