Inside the volcanic pain and cosmic wonder of Björk’s inner world: come with an open mind (and some extra time)
Unless sulky spoilers somehow enhance your entertainment choices, do yourself a favour and hold off on reading the early reviews of Björk’s mid-career “retrospective” at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Some have griped that the show favours spectacle over substance; others sensationalised the relative smallness of the show. That said, don’t expect this to be the musical equivalent to the epic Savage Beauty. Instead, if Björk interests you even a little – and how could she not? – come to this experience with an open mind, neutral expectations, and be ready to meet and enjoy it on its own terms. Like her new album, Vulnicura, Björk is unique in its ability to play out like a living diary (and that's not a metaphor – journals are central to this exhibit). It's introspective, not outwardly reflecting. So, slow it down and be mindful of the present, not trying to force this experience to be something it isn’t. Rush ahead, and you may not be able to hit rewind. Give yourself a few hours to get in sync with Björk’s internal world, as well as your own.
Organized by MoMA’s chief curator Klaus Biesenbach, Björk is split among several floors, though I would have just preferred one compact Björk floor, for a seamless navigation. In a modest, hushed theater, you can watch her entire pioneering music video collection in chronological order, which I recommend to anyone – but it doesn’t have to be here, sitting stiffly on a bean bag among strangers. At the same time, the curators would be remiss not to include them. After all, Björk’s impact on music video making alone is worth a full-time museum or dedicated cinema unto itself for the careers she’s helped launch and blossom. Did you know the only music video Alexander McQueen ever directed was for Björk? It was for her lesser-known single, “Alarm Call,” in 1999. And her adventures with Gondry? Godlike. The deeply psychological take on Goldilocks in “Human Behavior” defined what “breakthrough” really meant for 90s music videos. Fortunately, MoMA had the good sense to dedicate more physical space to some of her most iconic videos in “Songlines”, the immersive, narrated part of the journey. The museum is thrilled about their acquisition of the 2011 interactive Biophilia app (remember it?) – the first tech of its kind in their possession. Again, it should be there for the sake of being holistic, though you can also experience it anywhere. More promisingly, you can get up close with that album’s mutant instruments, including a gravity harp and a live Tesla Coil sprouting forks of lightning.
Then, you arrive at the divisive chapter. You’ll wait (and wait) to enter “Songlines,” the most-talked about and time-ticketed component of the exhibition, and as you do, you’re surrounded by sheet music and video clips from Björk’s memorable live performances over the years. So far, so standard. You’re eventually welcomed and given an iPhone and headphones with geolocation technology (courtesy of Volkswagen?) and pass through a curtain to a deeper within. An opiate-laced male voice gently suggests you to take your time, about five minutes for each room – one for each of her eight albums. (Tip: Your mileage will vary.) As you enter, Björk’s debut single, “Venus As A Boy”, with its unmistakable Tabla rhythms, sweeps over your surround-sound earbuds. Next: it’s the Post era, announced by a page from an early journal of Björk’s containing outtake lyrics. A woman (actress Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) begins speaking rhapsodically, in verse, about girls and heartbeats. This turns out to be The Triumphs of the Heart, a long-form poem by Icelandic writer Sjón, and it runs throughout this experience, layered over Björk’s music. The effect is surprisingly overstimulating and hypnotic, landing mentally two shortwave signals and eavesdropping on dueling streams at once. It’s disorienting, trying to focus on the music, the words you’re reading, the words you’re hearing, and the bits and bobs of childhood nostalgia and deconstructionist clothing surrounding you. Not enough time to digest it all, not with a stranger’s breath on your ear. It’s unique: almost like ASMR but less relaxing – “Slow down,” the little man in your ears instructs you, and you do. (Apparently some felt rushed by attendants to the next room and could not retrace their steps, but this was not my experience.) “Listen to your heartbeat.” Zero in on something. I lean towards the visual, so I easily latched onto the eye candy (dresses and diaries, basically, which sounds girly, but isn’t), while letting the familiar strains of Björk’s music, as well as this new alien poetry, flood in and out as they felt like it, trusting it to process organically. This seems like the best way to enjoy “Songlines”: submit to innocence and let your most innate curiosity lead the way. Your memory of the 40-minute trip won’t be linear, and no two experiences will be quite the same. You’re left more with an impression (or suggestion?) than a documentarian blueprint, and it’s fine. Preferable, even.
“Björk, the experience, is just the start of a vital discussion about the impact of Björk, the artist” – Colleen Nika
“Look around you,” the zenmaster swoons, as you glide past a miniature figure of Björk in her an oversized mohair sweater. Fashion-wise, the core Björk classics are all accounted for. Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski’s infamous Swan Dress gets its own corner of the "Songlines" walk, displayed on a creepy mannequin version of Björk, mirroring an uncanny Tussaud. But you’re also treated to a full view of her Post era Airmail Jacket, designed by Hussein Chalayan, and those elusive tomato-red platform boots from her virtual-heavy “Hyperballad” video, created by Walter Van Beirendonck. They’re from 1995, and look perfectly at home in 2015. Other standouts come from Alexander McQueen (The Bell Dress, seen in the video for “Who Is It?” and the crystalline “Pagan Poetry” top) and 3D-print maven, Iris Van Herpen, Björk’s core fashion collaborator from Biophilia forward. There’s also a celebration of Björk’s inventive video sets and props, with a whole room dedicated to visualizing Volta, with furry yaks, painted murals, wildly knit woven props from the “Wanderlust” video — a palette of violent, kindercore primary colours. But Chris Cunningham’s robot lovers from “All Is Full Of Love” easily steal the show, no less serene and unknowable than they were in 1999.
It was through that now iconic, award-winning video – now a part of MoMA’s permanent collection – that Björk crystallised her point about using artificial means to create and question intimacy. It’s always been a theme in her music, one that’s also become increasingly normalized in all culture, receiving special focus at the current Triennial exhibit happening downtown at the New Museum. The “Songlines” experience connects to this idea by using a medium that is standardly used to simply narrate the biographical details of an artist’s career to create a whole new layer to her story. Biesenbach later explained Björk had no interest in looking back at her art, only forward, and that she wanted “Songlines” to feel like sonic topography, where you could land on a song from afar and understand the life story it stemmed from. Or at least, a version of a story. Fact wasn’t the focus. The poet Sjón created this semi-fictional aspect with his poetry (sample line, Medulla phase: “Every beat of the heart became as distinct as a shiny pearl spit from a girl’s mouth over the ocean to a boy.”) Some found his poem’s inclusion frustrating and unnecessary, and seemed unaware of his enormous and ongoing contribution to the language of Björk’s artistry – the lyrics to several of her most iconic songs, including “Joga” and “Bachelorette,” are his. I didn’t get to process as much of the poem as I would like, but I’m eager to revisit it.
The Björk MoMA experience concludes with “Black Lake,” a new extended music video by director Andrew Thomas Huang experienced in a specially sound-proofed room filled with cone-shaped insulation. On the morning I went, it was a claustrophobic’s nightmare, filled with one hundred impatient and overheated members of the media, but this is literally how all press events feel, so I doubt this will be most people’s experience. After more waiting and a persistent rumor that Björk was secretly entrenched among us, Biesenbach finally speaks in the darkness, thanking us. Then, miraculously, Björk chirps up, sounding shy. (She’s disguised as an avant cactus, as you probably already heard.) She also gives thanks, hat-tipping “Marco,” and then less than two minutes later, all goes silent, and “Black Lake” begins. It plays out on dueling screens, demanding you crane your neck back and forth to catch all the action. Wearing another Iris Van Herpen creation, Björk walks among igneous volcanic ruins in her native Iceland, pounding devastating hurt out of her chest as sapphire-hot lava explodes around her. The centerpiece of her latest album, Vulnicura, “Black Lake” is a painful exploration of Björk’s split from long-time partner, Matthew Barney, with whom she has a child. At ten minutes long, its video pairs elemental and emotional destruction, a fully shattering experience that supports the singer’s ongoing interest in object-oriented ontology.
I am biased in that I came to Björk wanting to love it, like the many who line up early for this project, much as they do her concerts. I’ve been a fairly devoted Björk listener since the late 90s, am someone who connects more to artful pop and music videos than to “art, proper”, and I’m generally willing to suspend cynicism, especially for people who’ve already proven their merit. I hold no stake in the alleged debate over whether MoMA or Biesenbach have jumped the shark in recent years or not, and what that means for upmarket creative life. As a Gen Y growing up with Gen X icons, I regard her as a bonafide legend for not just women – but maybe especially for women – and as someone whose canonization is long overdue. Björk, the experience, is just the scheduled start of a vital looming discussion about the impact of Björk, the artist. So, come for Björk, not the scene – because, despite a myriad of brilliant collaborations, she is not of a scene. Björk has never been confined to any genre, peer group or category, but she makes brief and impactful scenes happen, around her, based on her instincts. She is a true creative director and vanguard in this sense. She attracts fellow wayward innovators, from Vulnicura’s co-producers, Arca and Haxan Cloak, to inspired past partnerships with Mark Bell (RIP), Nellee Hooper, Matmos, Rahzel, Mike Patton, Timbaland, Dirty Projectors – the list is exhaustive and insanely varied. And without her presence transforming pop life, it’s hard to imagine that inscrutable musicians Sia, The Knife, Lady Gaga, or even FKA Twigs and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu could enjoy the embrace – or visual intrigue – they have.
To witness the breadth of Björk’s impact on other artists here – an interactive web of influence, maybe – would have been a treat. The omission of a feature like that is my primary gripe with Björk, not logistics. But her imprint is everywhere, and the connections rest where we want to see them. As Björk once sang, “Maybe not from the direction you are staring at / Twist your head around, it's all around you.”
Björk is at the Museum of Modern Art from March 8 to June 7, find out more details here