This Sunday’s opening of the Björk Retrospective is sure to bring in swarms of fans and folks curious as to what all the hype is about.
The show draws from more than 20 years of Björk’s innovative career. It took years for MoMA’s Chief Curator, Klaus Biesenbach to convince Björk to do this show – her chief concern as a musician was the museum being able to provide the same visceral experience one can enjoy with paintings with music at its core.
Chronologically, the exhibition begins with the release of Björk’s first solo album, Debut, and proceeds through her career up to her most recent work in 2015, including a new video and music installation commissioned especially for the Museum, Black Lake (which also appears on her new album, Vulnicura).
The experience begins in the museum’s lobby, where you’ll encounter musical instruments programmed to play music and sounds from her seventh album, Biophilia. The only one I saw during the preview was the Gravity Harp designed by Andrew Cavatorta.
The other instruments promised – a Tesla coil, a gameleste (combination of a gamelan and a celesta) and pipe organ, will hopefully be on display by the opening of the show.
Then onto the Marron Atrium for the immersive sound and sight experience, Songlines…
It begins in a dark corridor, not unlike the corral they used during the Tim Burton retrospective. I’m sure it’s meant to entertain you while you wait to enter the actual exhibit (suitable for those long summer lines sure to come). Monitors flank both sides of the lines, playing excerpts from a range of her concerts.
You’re about to take a 45-minute guided tour through her seven albums: Debut (1993), Post (1995), Homogenic (1997), Vespertine (2001), Medulla (2004), Volta (2007), and Biophilia (2011). Think of it as a Björk concert – colored lights, transformative music, and those iconic wacky outfits. Before you enter, you’re given a device and a headset, and asked to listen to a 2-minute introduction preparing you for the accompanying fictious biographical journey written by Icelandic writer and longtime Björk collaborator, Sjón.
This is not intended to be your normal museum experience – instead of rushing through – you are supposed to pace yourself with the story that unfolds. Your device leads the way; the screens changes in time with the next chapter of the story – the next album graphic that appears signals your entry into the next portal a’ la Björk. Making sure there’s no confusion, each room is also denoted with the album graphic seen on your device.
Here’s the deal – you can’t force people not to charge ahead, but if you shut out the distractions (difficult to do with the limited amount of space versus the number of people that might be in the room with you at any given time) and give yourself over to the imaginative story backed by classic Björk songs, the next 43 minutes should be a intimate poetic dance of words, accompanied by visual images that embody the essence of a Björk show (i.e. not Björk herself). If you, like me, can map out college and all the years after with her music – you will geek out over the memorabilia.
I warn those who are not onboard with magical realism – this narration, coupled with the wispy, tiny voice of Icelandic actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir might just come off as nonsensical storytelling.
Hussein Chalayan, Turkish Cyproit, British, born 1970 Airmail Jacket, 1994/2015 Tyvek, from the cover of POST
Chris Cunningham, British, born 1970 “All is Full of Love” Robots, 1999
Alexander McQueen, British, 1969–2010 “Pagan Poetry” Dress, 2001 / Matthew Barney, American, born 1967 Vespertine Music Box, 2001 acrylic, brass and copper mechanical apparatus /Vespertine Live Shoes, 2001 Acrylic
Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir aka Shoplifter, Icelandic, born 1969 Medulla hair piece, 2004 Human hair and mesh fabric / Alexander McQueen, British, 1969–2010 Bell Dress, 2004 Silk, metal bells
Icelandic Love Corporation Wild Woman Voodoo Granny Doily Crochet, 2007/2015 Woolen yarn, wood, foam, polyester and plastic
Bjork’s Journals containing song lyrics from around the time of Debut.
There’s a cinema space showing a chronological presentation of Björk’s music videos, it clocks in at a little over 4 hours. Considering the time you’ll spend waiting to see the other exhibits, I’d recommend watching those babies on your big screen tv in the comfort of your own home (youtube anyone?).
Instead, head over to the lower level of the Marron Atrium for, Black Lake. Sorry to tell you – there will be more standing in line. Our wait, however, was rewarded with a visit from Bjork – in full cactus regalia – who gave a quick thank you speech in that wonderful fantasy world voice of hers.
Bjork. Still from “Black Lake,” commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015. Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian
Hello, hard-core Björk fans, this is where the magic happens – Black Lake is a 10-minute video, commissioned by MoMA, filmed on location in Iceland. Like most Björk productions, its ambitious and wrought with emotion. Most already know that this song is about her ending relationship with Matthew Barney. This is what I love about Björk – that raw space she allows you to inhabit – this was definitely a wound.
The video plays on two huge screens situated to the left and the right of the viewer, in a space made to evoke the feeling of the cavernous space she filmed most of the video inside. There are beats that resound against the walls and bounce against you like heartbeats. She sings with such anguish that at times it seems too much, being filled up with her emotion and yours. Thank goodness for those huge gaps where the beat dies down leaving the aching to subside – only for it to begin again – for your heartbeat to start back up. There’s a part in the video where she pounds on her chest in panicked steady beats – love dies and the old self with it, to survive you must make yourself anew – it was like watching a pained resuscitation. What’s not said (cool fact) is that she never lipsynced this – Björk sung this passionately take after take until they got it just right.
It’s not a perfect retrospective, I wish the costumes were just there instead of placed on weird Madame Tussaud statues. Instead of merely hosting videos, maybe some behind the scene workings of the albums themselves would have worked. I mean, Medulla was a triumph all in itself. That album was created almost entirely a capella, constructed with human vocals. During the press conference, they talked extensively about her creative process – totally absent from the exhibits. I’m tempted to say that the backstory of the undertaking is far more interesting than elements of the actual show.
Needless to say, in spite of all that, I enjoyed myself. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a huge Björk fan. If you like nothing else about the retrospective, focus on the evolution and beauty of her music that moves you and hope that that was the point all along because after you’ve spent hours in these exhibits she remains ever the enigma.
Maybe that’s what was always intended.