The fuschia insides of a pulsating mouth are staring back at me, sharp, shadowy white teeth warping and rotating with the surrounding flesh. Specks of saliva are dotted around, glistening with a fierce sheen. Watching the inside of a mouth can feel unsettling, nauseating, and confusing, but it’s also fascinating being shown the workings of a part of the body that we’re not normally able to see. This is not just any person’s mouth though – it’s Björk’s. I’m watching the 360-degree video for the Icelandic singer’s “Mouth Mantra” as part of her Björk Digital exhibition at London’s Somerset House. Placed on a swivelling stool in a darkened room, I peer closely into the flesh through a virtual reality headset, every now and again moving my gaze away from the flesh and towards the darkness at the other side. Tilting my head down, my stomach lurches as if I’ve just looked to the ground from a skyscraper.
The video was created by Japanese-born, Canadian-raised visual artist Jesse Kanda, who before now had mostly been known for his work with FKA twigs and his longtime friend (and housemate) Arca. Kanda’s work often feels like a sensory overload – the visuals for Arca’s “Sad Bitch” are particularly unsettling for those with trypophobia, depicting holes popping up rapidly on the back of a writhing, metallic body – and the video for “Mouth Mantra” is no different, filmed using 12 cameras from inside an intricate model of Björk’s mouth. It’s a work that was emotionally and physically challenging, stretching Kanda between elation and agony – so much so that it ended up hospitalising him. But it was also a huge honour: speaking to Dazed in 2014 in his only other interview to date, Kanda discussed his desire to one day work with Björk, and you can see the passion and respect he holds as he talks about working with her.
Sitting in Stoke Newington’s Clissold Park eating pistachios on a beamingly sunny day, Kanda discussed everything from working with Björk to his other creative endeavours (he has music of his own forthcoming) to his childhood to depression. Throughout the conversation, one word came up more often than others: ‘sensitivity’. Sensitivity is crucial to Kanda, from how he creates his artwork to how he interacts with people.
You made the video using a model of Björk’s mouth. How did the concept come about?
Jesse Kanda: The idea came from me wanting to create something as intimate as possible because Vulnicura, the album, the whole album, is really one of the most intimate things that I’ve ever heard. I felt the urge to try and mirror that in my way. The mouth, being Björk’s vessel from which she expresses her primary art, inspired me to try to do something with that. What I wanted to do was get all up in there. In the research phase, we were looking at all sorts of different tiny little cameras and endoscopes. It’s funny because it seems really obvious now, because the song is called ‘Mouth Mantra’.
You previously said that the video was a ‘terrifying horrific experience’, but also ‘a dream come true and pure ecstasy.’ It can sometimes be difficult when you’re experiencing such highs and lows, but that’s better than everything being in the middle.
Jesse Kanda: Of course. I would be more worried if I didn’t feel depressed now and again because then I’d be like, ‘Huh, where is it?’ Right, which was a huge part of the ‘Mouth Mantra’ video, and also a huge part of my life in general. I’m always fluctuating between depression or self-doubt or being stuck and feeling foggy, and then expanding out to feeling clarity and feeling ecstatic. I feel like it’s an accordion (motions hands moving in and out). You need that to push the wheel, like pumping a motor.
“I genuinely think the human body is gorgeous and beautiful and there’s so many mysteries and things you can tie it with emotionally and psychologically” – Jesse Kanda
Was it a challenge to make the video?
Jesse Kanda: What we had to do was build a mouth that was four feet by four feet by four feet. It’s really amazing. The incredible animatronics artist John Nolan’s studio made this animatronic model of Björk’s actual mouth. So they moulded her mouth and enlarged it, sculpted it, painted it, and then made it into a robot that would open and close and the tongue would move.
What, for you, was the significance of it being the mouth? Was there anything apart from it being the body part where most of Björk’s expression comes from?
Jesse Kanda: The mouth is so beautiful to me. It just all fit together like a puzzle. It had to be 360, so what part of your body has something going on in all directions? And then which of them is beautiful, moist, and animated? I guess it’s the animator’s side of me that’s fascinated by the mouth and the way that it moves. It’s just the sexiest part of the whole body! Also the teeth – it’s bone, it’s exoskeleton, it’s the only part of the body where you can see your actual bones. That is sick! So on a visual level, there are all kinds of different colours and architectures. There’s stuff that’s solid and white, and then there’s stuff that’s wet and pink and veins and it’s all blue underneath. That all informed the rest of the video, like the make-up for example. I asked (make-up artist) Inge Grognard if we could make the make-up as organic as possible, that maybe it looks like the inside of the body has inverted on itself and come outward.
The video is quite a sensory overload, especially experienced through a virtual reality headset. At the same time as feeling quite intimate, it also feels very intense. Watching it at Somerset House, it almost made me feel physically sick. The inside of the mouth produces a very visceral reaction.
Jesse Kanda: Which, again, all threads together like a puzzle with how I felt emotionally. The whole video is like a portrait of anguish, in a way. You can see somebody in pain, or people in pain. The song, and also me. I think you’re feeling that energy. I hope that it’s not just that, that it’s also euphoric and ecstatic and that it’s a celebration.
“I did 900, 1000 hours of me sitting in front of a computer, looking at Björk’s mouth. It was so crazy. I actually had to go to the hospital” – Jesse Kanda
Could you talk a bit more about the process of making the video?
Jesse Kanda: It was more collaborative than usual. I was really open to collaborating and having other people’s input, but I wanted to make sure that when all the different parts got done – the animatronics, the shoot, the 360 camera, their energy and creativity would all funnel back into me in the post-production, so I could glue and sculpt it all together. Post-production ended up being very intense, because it’s unusual to work alone on that scale. Animators know very well that it’s a frame-by-frame affair, so we’re used to intense labour. I did 900, 1000 hours of me sitting in front of a computer, looking at Björk’s mouth. It was so crazy. I actually had to go to the hospital! It’s so funny, the whole thing is anatomical, so surgical, and I ended up in a hospital for it. I actually put so much pressure on myself that at one of the meetings in Iceland, I started convulsing and passed out. They pumped me up with stuff and a few hours later I woke up in a pitch dark hospital room… Björk was sitting there, glowing in a gorgeous white dress. She was lit from watching a movie on her phone in this total black void, pretty much exactly like the video.
What was embedded in the feeling of coming up with the idea?
Jesse Kanda: On the one hand, it’s honest. I genuinely think the human body is gorgeous and beautiful and there’s so many mysteries and things you can tie it with emotionally and psychologically. On the other hand, there is a feisty side, almost a prankster kid side, that’s like ‘How could I get people’s attention?’ I’d say it’s 80% just what I think is beautiful and what moves me. It moves me because I feel like there have definitely been moments in my life where I’ve questioned myself, ‘Why do I think this is bad?’ Questioning yourself and analysing yourself, being conscious of your own morals.
Björk Digital runs at London’s Somerset House from September 1 to October 23
Follow Aurora Mitchell on Twitter here @auroramitch