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Bjork September 2004
Dazed September 2004Photography Laurence Passera, Montage Photography Nadya Wasylko, Montage Hussein Chalayan

Your guide to Björk, one of our greatest living artists

With her Björk Digital exhibition opening in London next week, we take a look back at the Icelandic artist and her decades of innovation

Throughout her decades-long career, Icelandic multi-disciplinary singer-songwriter, innovator, and artist Björk has established herself as one of the most exciting musicians actively making music today, inspiring and working with everyone from Jay Z to David Attenborough. Her relentless experimentation has defied genre boundaries and the limitations of music itself, and led to a number of firsts in her career. Her latest move is the European premiere of Björk Digital, an exhibition of digital and video works taking place at London’s Somerset House throughout September and October. Björk Digital is accompanied by a show at the Royal Albert Hall, while the exhibition itself features virtual reality collaborations like “Stonemilker VR”, a collaboration with Thomas Huang wherein the viewer is transported via virtual reality to a beach in Iceland where they’ll experience a one-to-one recital of the Vulnicura track.

To celebrate all things Björk and help you to navigate her enigma, we’ve put together a handy guide that just about scratches the surface.


Björk is frequently described as a ‘popstar’, but it’s more accurate to call her a capital ‘A’ Artist. She’s consistently challenged what people have come to expect from a musician: a typical album, for example, will be a full project that spans a number of mediums, bringing together fashion, film, art, and technological innovations.


‘Biophilia’ means, literally, an innate affinity of human beings with the natural world, and Björk’s 2011 concept album of the same name was intended to explore the relationship between music, nature, and technology. Biophilia was released alongside a series of ten apps (one for each track of the album) exploring musicology concepts. It was also followed by a series of hands-on educational workshops in musicology across four continents. The project is still ongoing, and aims to encourage children to explore their own creativity while learning about music, nature, and science through new technologies.


While widely and truthfully considered a solo artist, Björk has had a number of exciting collaborations and ongoing relationships with a number of huge names, including the poet Sjón, rapper Tricky, Madonna, designer Alexander McQueen, and many more. Even though these collaborations contribute to Björk’s overall vision – and even though she co-produces all of her albums – these collaborations have often led to critics denying her authorship, something that she has attributed to being a woman.


Björk has cited Sir David Attenborough as one of her biggest and earliest musical influences, saying that she “identified with his thirst for exploring new and wild territories”. She now ranks him among one of her many high-profile collaborators, and for Biophilia her embrace of science and technology led her to work with him on a documentary exploring the relationship between nature and music, When Björk Met Attenborough, for Channel 4.


In 1998, Björk started her own label, Ear Records, a sublabel of One Little Indian (the label that Björk is signed to – see below). It was a fairly short-lived project: Magga Stína, a longtime friend of Björk’s and former frontwoman of Icelandic punk band Risaeðlan, was the only signee to ever have an album for the label. An Album, an experimental record made with 808 State member and Björk collaborator Graham Massey, was released in 1998.


From her infamous Oscars swan dress to an outfit constructed entirely from bells, Björk has been known for her exciting, provocative, and often controversial ties to fashion since long before Lady Gaga became a thing. Repeatedly pushing boundaries in this area, she had a longstanding relationship with designer Alexander McQueen, who designed the very-NSFW pearl outfit for the “Pagan Poetry” video.


While often described, reductively, as a ‘pop queen’, Björk defies the boundaries of genre. As well as utilising nature and technology in her work, she has worked in and experimented with every genre – trip hop with Homogenic, pop with The Sugarcubes’ single “Birthday”, house music with Debut, and punk with alt-girl band Spit and Snot. She uses everything she finds inspirational to create her own sound and defy definition with every new release.


The first single from her 1993 album Debut, “Human Behaviour” was written when Björk was still with her pre-solo work avant-pop group The Sugarcubes, but she opted not to release it with the band. The song was a worldwide hit and indicative of many of Björk’s themes to come. The single was inspired by David Attenborough, who she would later go on to work with, and the lyrics reflected upon human nature from an animal perspective. The video was also the first of many collaborations with French director Michel Gondry.


Born in Reykjavík and raised on a hippie commune by her activist mother, Björk’s work is intrinsically linked to her Icelandic upbringing. Her album Homogenic was packed full of songs that she wrote in tribute to, and inspired by, the country. She stated that she saw a contradiction between the rough nature of Iceland and its embrace of technology, and that she wanted to combine strings with electronic music to mimic this. Even today Björk is inspired by what she saw growing up and the freedom that she felt she had to explore nature.


Björk generally prefers not to say which musicians inspired her, opting instead to discuss her other myriad inspirations. One artist she’s not shy about her love for, however, is Joni Mitchell. Björk has said that Mitchell was the musician that inspired her to start writing her own lyrics, and that she “created her own musical universe with female emotion, energy, wisdom courage and imaginations” – something that Björk found “very liberating”.


One of Björk’s first bands was an Icelandic post-punk group, Kukl (‘black magic’ in Icelandic), that she joined when she was just 17. The band were signed to Björk’s current label One Little Indian, and were originally formed as an supergroup made up of members of avant-garde groups like Purrkur Pillnikk and Medúsa. The band were put together to perform on the final episode of radio show Áfangar, but were quickly made permanent. Infighting brought Kukl to an end, but the members started new projects – one being The Sugarcubes.  


Björk moved to London in the early 90s in an attempt to follow the music and beats that she was inspired by at the time. The move had a huge effect on the singer, not only in the Cockney twang that could be heard within her Icelandic accent, but in many aspects of her music. Debut, credited as one of the most successful pop records to include electronic beats at the time, is heavily inspired by and reflects the music in London of the time; including the burgeoning trip hop scene. Björk also immersed herself heavily in dance and club culture, and was massively inspired by the people she met during this time.


Björk’s unusual and exciting music videos are an entire event in themselves. She has worked with a number of world renowned directors, from Spike Jonze to Chris Cunningham, but it’s French director Michel Gondry that she’s worked with more than anyone else. He directed six of her music videos between 1993 and 2011, including a trilogy of related videos for “Human Behaviour”, “Isobel”, and “Bachelorette”. The videos followed a character, Isobel, in a journey from the forest to the city and back again.


Due in large part to her life in Iceland, Björk is obsessed with the natural world. She not only frequently references nature in her work, but actively uses nature to create music, even transmitting the movements of the Earth to the sound of a harp for “Solstice” on Biophilia. She is also a passionate environmental activist and has started her own foundations and programs to teach the world about the importance of nature.


Björk’s early project The Sugarcubes were signed to London-based independent label One Little Indian. She approached them with a demo of her own music, which included songs that would later feature on Debut, and she’s stuck with them for her entire solo career. Her decision to stick with them throughout her career was in part due to being a mother – she wanted to work with a smaller label that would understand her situation. On this, she has said: “People say ‘You’re so lucky to have such a great situation with your record label’, but they don’t realise it’s a long story. I have had 500 options to sell out or compromise, and I never did. Each time it was maybe not a big step – people might say ‘oh that wouldn’t matter, that’s just a detail’ - but when you’ve gone 500 compromises down the road, you’re fucked.”


While perhaps not considered the most overtly political singer, and reticent to say so herself, Björk has aligned herself with a number of political causes throughout her career. As well as her rejection of patriarchy and embrace of feminist values, Björk has campaigned heavily for liberation, education, and environmental causes. She even controversially dedicated her song “Declare Independence” to The Tibetan Freedom movement at a 2008 concert in Shanghai, upsetting the government of China.


A key thread to Björk’s art lies in her quizzical nature, in her constant need to learn more. Her work is a constant and experimental exploration of herself, nature, technology, and everything around her – she has an almost childlike need to learn. This is a major defining factor in who Björk is as both an artist and a person, as she learns more through each album and invites other people to be inquisitive through her.


Earlier this year, Björk pushed the boundaries of art and fashion yet again, unveiling the Rottlace mask that she created with designer and researcher Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group. Inspired by her album Vulnicura, the mask made its debut at a show in Tokyo and attempts to emulate Björk’s bone and tissue structure. The design was informed by the material logics of the face, and it was printed using 3D printing technology. The name is a variation on the Icelandic ‘skinless’.


When Björk was just twenty years old, she gave birth to her son, Sindri. On the exact same day, nine years into her career, she formed alternative band The Sugarcubes with ex-Kukl members and her then-husband Þór Eldon. The Sugarcubes received critical acclaim all over the world and signed to One Little Indian in 1987, the label that Björk is still under today despite the band’s 1992 split. The band remain friends and had a reunion concert in 2006.  


Living alongside her fascination with nature is Björk’s love and fear of technology. Through Biophilia and her other work, notably the music video for “All is Full of Love”, Björk combines technological with organic life to explore her relationship with technology. For Biophilia she also designed instruments to create new sounds, released ten apps, and more. For Björk Digital she has again embraced technology in order to create a full Virtual Reality experience, in just the latest boundary-pushing technological innovation in her work.


Despite often being cited as one of the greatest musical artists of our time, Björk is often described as ‘unlistenable’ in the same breath. Intended sometimes as a compliment rather than a criticism, ‘unlistenable’ describes the way that Björk combines a number of different genres, beats, technologies and sounds to create something beyond our typical understanding of music.


Vulnicura, Björk’s latest studio album, is a visceral exploration of Björk’s feelings surrounding her breakup with American artist Matthew Barney. Intended to be released alongside the Björk Archives and the MOMA exhibition, Vulnicura was leaked two months early. It signalled a return to the sounds explored on 1997’s Homogenic, with string arrangements and electronic beats providing the foundations of the album. The album was widely acclaimed and led directly to the Björk Digital VR experience.


Though famously level-headed and even-tempered, Björk lost her cool in 1996 when she arrived in Thailand. In a video, it appeared that all reporter Julie Kaufman had to say was “Welcome to Bangkok” in order for Björk to attack her, but the singer and her record company later claimed that the reporter had been hounding Björk and her son for days.


Björk’s career has had close ties with the film industry, and her music has been featured on a number of soundtracks. Notably, Björk allowed her Homogenic track “Hunter” to appear on the soundtrack for the 1998 The X-Files movie. Her song was the only track on the entire soundtrack that wasn’t exclusive to the film.


Björk was heavily interested in music from an incredibly young age. After singing a cover of Tina Charles’ “I Love to Love” at school, Björk’s teachers sent a recording of her to Iceland’s only radio station. A representative of an Icelandic record label soon offered Björk a recording contract, and her first album was released at the age of 11. Scared of fame and recognition, she then focused primarily on collaborative acts until she was 27 years old.


Surrounding the release of her solo album Debut, Björk supported one of the biggest bands in the world on their 1993 Zoo TV Tour – U2. Little did the audience know that they were watching someone who would later go on to become one of the most influential artists on the planet.

Björk Digital runs at London’s Somerset House from September 1 to October 23