Arts & Culture · Fine Art · Music

Björk at the Museum of Modern Art: Come Fall in Love

1 bjork vulnicura vlm_iso39l30_vlm15008_bjork_01673gfogratac300Björk, Vulnicura, 2015 Copyright © 2015 Inez and Vinoodh. Image courtesy of Wellhart/One Little Indian.

Even if you don’t enjoy listening to Björk’s otherworldly music as you are cooking dinner or running in the park, you owe it to yourself to try to appreciate one of the most original pioneers of contemporary culture alive today. The highly criticized show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York has its flaws, but it is a good excuse to get to know Björk and her highly inventive work. The main show at MoMA is on view through June 7, while a new video installation, Stonemilker, is at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City through May 17.

If you are already a Björk fan, the MoMA show will remind you of most of the groundbreaking projects that Björk has created over the past 22 years. If you’re not a fan, you’ll need more information to help you understand the scope of Björk’s talent as a musician and as a collaborative, multimedia artist. There is a lot of information available about the show, but it is found in the show’s catalogue or spread out between the different viewing areas in the museum. This is a problem for visitors who are not already indoctrinated into the world of Björk.

Björk was born in Iceland, a small country shaped by the dramatic forces of nature. Active volcanoes, bright green valleys, glacier-cut fjords, black sand beaches, oxbow lakes, and roaring rivers are features of the Icelandic landscape. Björk claims that she sang to the landscape as she walked to and from school every day as a child, interacting with what she experienced in nature and mapping the spaces with her own sounds. I imagine her singing softly to wildflowers on the tundra and howling with the wind on the mountains.

Björk was a rebel from an early age. She studied at a classical music school from the age of five, learning composition and playing the flute. But Björk always knew that she wanted to make her own, new type of music. As a teenager, she was involved with a surrealistic poetry, painting, and photography collective in Reykjavík called Medúsa. She was also a member of several experimental orchestras. From 1986 to 1992, she was one of the leading members of Iceland’s best-known punk band, the Sugarcubes. When the Sugarcubes split up, Björk moved to London to pursue a solo career. A year later, she released the first album of her own work, Debut, which included a Bollywood-inspired string arrangement, a jazz standard played on a harp, and a song with only a saxophone ensemble as accompaniment. Today, at almost 50 years old, Björk is as innovative and uncompromising as ever.

2 moma_bjork_debutBjörk, Debut, 1993. Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Image courtesy of Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian

Björk is interested in classical music, avant-garde and punk performance, dance music, electronic music, traditional Nordic songs, Broadway show tunes, literature, poetry, fashion, film, science, technology, ecology, philosophy, education, politics, and art. She has worked with chamber orchestras, choirs, brass bands, hip-hop beat boxers, microbeat experts (two guys who record inaudible and barely audible household sounds), application developers (for her 2011 educational science app album, Biophilia), video- and film makers, photographers, fashion designers, craftspeople, an experimental harpist, and an Inuit throat singer from Canada. She composed the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) and won an Oscar for her starring role in the film. She also composed the Japanese-inspired soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 (2005) and appeared in the hour-long art video with Barney, her partner at the time..

3 slipcase momabjorkslipcasecoverCover of Björk, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

MoMA’s Björk is an enjoyable experience if visitors take an active role in exploring the show. In the spirit of Björk’s vision, the show is experimental and creative, not instructive. The team that put the show together has tried to design a space that includes many elements of Björk’s work while focusing on her music, and presenting it all in an innovative way as a sort of “Björk experience.” Visitors who are already fans will know enough about Björk to appreciate what is on view and be able to put the work into context without looking for information to guide them. But visitors who are not familiar with Björk’s music and music videos will have trouble finding information and putting what they are seeing together into some sort of cohesive narrative. The show seems too simple when it is limited to the superficial story that is told in the sparse wall texts.

Björk at MoMA is organized into three main areas in the museum. In the Marron Atrium, two separate spaces have been constructed for the show. The first room contains a newly commissioned double-screened video installation for “Black Lake,” a song from Björk’s new album Vulnicura (2015), directed by Andrew Thomas Huang. The second room is a chill-out area where Björk’s music videos from 1993 to 2015 are shown in a continuous loop. On the third floor there is a more complex and problematic part of the show, called Songlines. In addition to these three main areas, there are several custom-made musical instruments in the museum lobby and a display of three iPads with the apps from Biophilia in the Architecture and Design Galleries on the third floor. And Stonemilker, a new video installation for a song from the album Vulnicura (2015) is being presented at MoMA PS1.

Next Page: The Sounds of Her Extraordinary Voice

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  • animals April 14, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Yes! Finally someone writes about pet.

  • Suzanne April 26, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Dear Grace, Thank you for your lovely comment! You should try to make it to PS1 and see Stonemilker, if you haven’t already seen it. One thing that I love about Björk is that aging doesn’t seem to inhibit her in any way. Like you, she seems freed by it. Thanks again! Suzanne

  • grace graupe-pillard April 26, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    Suzanne – you did a wonderful job with this review. I am one of the few people who was not convinced by the negative criticism to stay away from the exhibition – and I was so happy to have seen this show which was enchanting – particularly the Songlines. With the earphones on – i was in Bjork’s world and nothing outside could bother me. Her voice pierces me.