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Björk: A song of fire and ice

Klaus Biesenbach, the man behind the MoMA's new Björk show, looks at the artist's immense visual legacy and her new video

Klaus Biesenbach has spent more time than most considering Björk's artistic legacy and pivotal place in modern culture. Director of PS1 and chief curator-at-large at New York's MoMA, he's the man behind her landmark new exhibition. In this piece, extracted from his introduction to Bjork: Archives Thames and Hudson's coffee-table book on the Icelandic icon, he reports from the set of her new video, to be unveiled at the MoMA on Sunday, and looks back at her years of boundary-smashing visual work. 

As well as this excellent piece, to celebrate the MoMA retrospective, we have uploaded Dazed's entire archive of Björk features. You can read these here

For the 2015 exhibition at MoMA, Björk created the work “Black Lake,” which was filmed on location in Iceland during the summer of 2014. She conceived the song’s visualization with director Andrew Thomas Huang, with whom she had previously worked on the video for “Mutual Core.”

“Black Lake” is an eleven-minute-long looped composition that deals with the expression of the pain that Björk went through during her separation from artist Matthew Barney; a cathartic acknowledgment of this pain, as if only dying to be reborn. For the video she worked with choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir on expressive, dance-like movements, through which she palpably exorcised her pain, resonating with viewers and listeners, but also making the growth, reincarnation, and rebirth of her character a necessary and natural outcome of the process.

I sat in the prep trailer during the filming of “Black Lake” in the Icelandic landscape. All of a sudden I found myself listening to some music that sounded otherworldly; visceral and at the same time ephemeral; very real and rooted, but nonetheless ethereal. “What’s that?” I asked. “Do you all hear that?” James Merry, Björk’s personal assistant and close collaborator, who was instrumental in the visual identity of the video, answered, “That’s the artist Fatima al Qadiri. She included a Chinese singer interpreting Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ on her new album.”

Was hearing the famous song translated into Chinese such a displacement that it caught my full attention? No, that was not all I was hearing. In the background, behind a curtain, Björk was tuning her voice, exercising the width and capacity of her vocal spectrum, before leaving the trailer clad in a dress made out of a woven copper wire fabric to sing in a freezing, water-dripping cave. The camera crew and director were covered in layers of coats, but Björk was doing take after take, standing in her bare feet on cold wet sand.

Björk’s attitude to life could perhaps be described as an “oceanic feeling”: the need to get out of the house, to go towards the sea, hike up a mountain, and feel the romantic, unthreatening, pre-religious ecstasy of being at one with the world, in love with the world, part of the world. “Jóga,” “All is Full of Love,” and “Wanderlust” are all odes to the joy of loving the world. “Jóga” is a declaration of love for the wild natural landscape of Björk’s home country. The video opens with her lying on black sand on the seashore and ends with her standing on a peak overlooking everything beneath her.

She opens her body and her interior is full of rocks like a cave. The Chilean film-maker and writer Alejandro Jodorowsky notes that all humans are equal on the inside: you cut the human body open and we are all liquid and red, all full of blood. In a way the planet earth is like this, and it is most tangible in a country like Iceland, where the earth’s surface is often heated by the volcanic activity underground. Wherever you cut into the surface, you will end up with a red, liquid bath of lava. Tectonic rifts are like wounds in the body of the planet, where the hot liquid inside can get to the surface.

However, the metropolitan city also offers a polymorphous environment that can stimulate. There are city lights, moving traffic, and urban heartbeats. In many videos, Björk is either moving vertically or horizontally through the canyons of the city or the canyons of the countryside. For her, both the city and nature are backgrounds and foregrounds, protagonists and extras, objects and subjects, as part of an artistic practice that tries to touch it all, breathing it in, breathing it out, shouting and screaming and laughing at it, until it screams and laughs back. Certain motifs reappear throughout the work. The embrace of urban life shown by dancing on a moving truck in “Big Time Sensuality” is juxtaposed with the dancing on a train moving through the countryside in “I’ve Seen it All” from Dancer in the Dark. Both “Big Time Sensuality” and “Hyperballad” are welcome songs of the artist greeting the big city.

The video “Alarm Call”, directed by Alexander McQueen and featuring a dress designed by McQueen himself, is also about surfaces, the underwater surface, the forest, the meadow. It is like having sex with the world as a polymorphous perverted character that is stimulated by being in touch with all the surfaces of her body and everything she encounters (interestingly, independent from his collaborations with Björk, McQueen’s work was so much about surfaces that his celebrated exhibition, Savage Beauty, had a different surface in each of the exhibition rooms; and it was an almost fetishistic look at the detail that allowed the visitor to get close to his practice).

McQueen was one of Björk’s most important collaborators. Starting with his art direction for the cover of Homogenic, he went on to work with Björk on numerous pieces. They were more than just collaborators: like many others who work with Björk repeatedly, they were also close friends, and Björk performed at his memorial service in London in 2011, wearing an angelwinged dress by the late designer.

In another motif, drawings on Björk’s face become a veil, and this mask adds a layer of content to her face, making it a work of art. Similarly, her clothing often functions like body armature, like architecture fitted exactly around the body, like a perfectly molded shell; a sometimes porous, sometimes solid membrane between her and the world. In the video “Who Is It?” she wears Alexander McQueen’s bell dress, the bells looking like barnacles; she becomes the bell, while Iceland appears like a moonscape. On the cover of Volta, Björk wore a piece by Bernhard Willhelm, which resembled a carved-out empty shell of a cartoon figure, and the dresses designed by Iris van Herpen for Biophilia created a body armor-like shield around the artist.

The white coat in “Jóga” almost becomes an astronaut’s moon suit before the vast, tectonic, volcanic, black landscapes of Iceland, and in her first music video, “Human Behaviour”, Björk literally wears a space suit with a clear helmet on her interplanetary journey.

“Björk’s attitude to life could perhaps be described as an “oceanic feeling”: the need to get out of the house, to go towards the sea, hike up a mountain” – Klaus Biesenbach 

In the early 2000s, it would have been almost impossible to create an exhibition that was authentic to her work in the context of an art museum. However, projects such as 1999’s “All is Full of Love” and 2011’s Biophilia have paved the way for a synthetic presentation of Björk’s work. As the idea of a collaboration progressed, it became clear that Björk likes to work organically, with ideas being discussed, revisited, and researched on a daily basis, in a very exploratory way, incorporating life and work, reading, writing, talking, and listening. When we began seriously to discuss an exhibition proposal, one of the first things she did was send me short descriptions of the defining character traits of the seven characters of the seven albums that she had produced.

Ideas were further concretized at a workshop meeting between myself, Björk, James Merry, and Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak of M/M. Ongoing work was inspired by Björk’s interest in Timothy Morton’s ideas about Object-Oriented Ontology, which broadly speaking proposes the abandonment of differentiation between objects and subjects, taking humans out of an anthropocentric world and equalizing them with animals, plants, dead material, poems, songs, magnetic forces, telepathy, energies, and images. In an email conversation between Morton and Björk included later in this publication, they playfully come up with expressions to describe the fact that, in Björk’s work and Morton’s philosophy, sometimes the relationships between objects are more important than the objects themselves.

In order to visualize her characters, Björk has worked with many different photographers throughout her career, creating portraits that appear on album covers and liners, as well as other images that appear in magazines, books, and promotional materials. Juergen Teller, who was starting out in London at the same time as Björk, was an important early collaborator. Together they worked on the image for the cover of the single “Big Time Sensuality.” The video for the single was directed by Stéphane Sednaoui, who at the time worked very closely with Björk, and also on later videos and photo shoots, including the image that appears on the cover of her second album, Post.

During her years in London, Björk also worked with Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who photographed her for the cover and inner sleeve of her 1997 remix album, Telegram. Since the early 1990s Björk has had an ongoing dialogue with Jefferson Hack. He asked Björk to interview Karlheinz Stockhausen, and she was featured in Hack’s publication Dazed & Confused. He introduced her to many contacts from his sphere, including Alexander McQueen, Katy England, and Marjan Pejoski. In Hack’s own words, Björk is like a “live wire” and an open source who absorbs, connects and provides “leaps of thoughts to bring forward new ideas.” 

Since her time in London, Björk has embraced fashion as a manifestation of her expressions. She has worked closely with designers and stylists on each of her albums and for magazine shoots and public appearances. On the cover of Post, she wore a jacket made by Hussein Chalayan, one of her first close fashion friends, who, like her, had come to London as an immigrant. Together the pair would brainstorm. Post’s “Airmail” jacket, made of washable, malleable synthetic paper, reflected her character’s embrace of a cosmopolitan urbanity. Jeremy Scott would later create outfits for Björk’s Homogenic tour in 1997–98, and has created other garments she has worn at events and in public.

The multidisciplinary nature of 2011’s Biophilia led Björk to fresh collaborators, embracing science and technology in innovative ways. Björk worked with the television presenter David Attenborough on the Biophilia education programs, and with James Merry and Scott Snibbe on the development of the Biophilia app. This was worked on by several programmers and designers, including Max Weisel, who was then in his teens. The app was released just after the iPad came out. Björk’s integration of music, design, and digital technology was a landmark, and the app was subsequently acquired by MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, the first in the museum’s permanent collection. Importantly, the app channels the album’s music and the custom instruments that helped to create the songs. Björk worked with DIY scientists and creatives on the instruments, including gravity harps made by Andy Cavatorta; the gameleste made by Björgvin Tómasson and Matt Nolan; the pipe organ, also made by Tómasson; and the Sharpsichord, made by Henry Dagg. This was not the first time that Björk had utilized new instrument technology. The reactable, an electronic musical instrument, was featured on Volta . Its flat table top is activated with different objects or tangibles which create sounds and music that can be manipulated by the instrument’s player. An Icelandic female choir and their conductor Jon Stefansson joined Björk on her Biophilia tour at this time. For Biophilia, Björk collaborated with Iris van Herpen, who designed the dress she wore on the cover of the album and several pieces that she wore during the tour. These dresses, for which Van Herpen uses plastic, metal, and 3D printing, seem almost impenetrable, a kind of colorful body armor. The collaboration has continued into Björk’s next character, with Van Herpen designing dresses worn in the “Black Lake” installation (a version of the song appears on Björk’s eighth solo studio album).

“Black Lake,” which will premiere at the MoMA, focuses above all on the sound and projection of visuals, positioning the work as the basis of the whole exhibition. Definitive traits are the freezes between the verses, which resonate in the body of the listener. The finished work includes motifs from the Icelandic landscape, its flora, and the changes of states of matter from liquid to solid, as well as the ideas of pain, perishing, rebirth, and regenerating new energies. For this groundbreaking piece, filmed in a cave and a ravine during an especially cold period of summer, Icelandic rain is captured in the video’s imagery, illustrating the narrative of going through pain and arriving at a clearing. 

Björk was born during the four-year volcanic eruption that caused the formation of the Icelandic island Surtsey. Red-hot flowing lava formed a rocky island that was soon colonized by seeds that were washed ashore. These seeds brought the dead island into the cycles of life. At the end of filming “Black Lake,” the Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga erupted under a glacier, again bringing together scorching liquid with centuries-old glacier ice and generating new rocks out of the cooling magma.

This publication and exhibition cement Björk’s singular place in contemporary practice and celebrate her highly original and significant music, compositions, performances and visual presentations. As an artist whose work has been felt across many disciplines, Björk will undoubtedly continue to expand the boundaries of music, art, and our understanding of the world—connecting, influencing, and inspiring.

Klaus Biesenbach is Chief Curator at Large at The Museum of Modern Art and Director of MoMA PS1, New York. This piece is an edited extract, taken from Bjork: Archives, published by Thames & Hudson on 2nd March at £40.00

Read the rest of our Björk archive here