Arts & Culture · Fine Art · Music

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

4. blacklake_09Björk. 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

Björk’s new video installation, Black Lake, is shown in Marron Atrium in a large black box with sound-absorbing walls that resemble lava. It is shown simultaneously on two wide screens that mirror each other but are occasionally out of sync. The sound is superb and it is easy to hear all the nuances of Björk’s extraordinary voice and every word of her angry lyrics as she expresses the pain she experienced when her relationship to Matthew Barney, the father of her teenage daughter, ended. My favorite line from the song refers to Barney and his art: “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.”

In the video, Björk shows her close emotional connection to Iceland’s landscape by kneeling in a dark lava tunnel, barefoot in a gray wire dress, and rocking back and forth on her hands and knees in grief. Blue lava flows from a barren Icelandic landscape. Björk bangs her chest violently to the beat of a drum and then to the sound of violins. Eventually the video cuts from the desolate night landscape to a lush green mossy field in daylight where Björk is wearing a wispy, white and orange feathery cape. The song closes with the metaphor of a rocket as Björk sings: “As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer.” As her feathers fly off, Björk is like a phoenix, a mythological bird that is consumed by fire, to be reborn again.

IN2316Installation view of Björk, The Museum of Modern Art, March 8–June 7, 2015. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzik

Next to the Black Lake video installation there is a second room showing Björk’s music videos. The room is filled with mattress-like seating, and visitors can relax and watch a three-hours-and-fifteen-minutes loop of Björk’s music videos from 1993 to 2015. The music videos are not titled or credited, but they are in chronological order. The room desperately needed more ventilation when I was there, but it was otherwise pleasant to lie back and watch video after music video in a room full of strangers. It reminded me of the days of MTV when I often felt compelled to watch “just one more video” on television.

On the third floor there is the more curated part of the show, called Songlines. A separate timed ticket is required for this area in order to ensure that no more than 10 visitors are in any one gallery at a time. For Songlines, each visitor is given an audio device that delivers a 40-minute-long, interactive, location-based audio tour of seven of Björk’s solo albums released between 1993 and 2011, with a semi-biographical fictional narrative. There is a separate area or gallery for each album: Debut (1993), Post (1995), Homogenic (1997), Vespertine (2001), Medúlla (2004), Volta (2007), and Biophilia (2011). There are also notebooks filled with Björk’s lyrics and drawings, photos, and other personal objects on display in glass cases, and costumes used in music videos and on tour. The robots designed by Chris Cunningham for the All Is Full of Love (1999) music video are on view here, along with Marjan Pejoski’s Swan Dress (2001) that Björk wore to the Oscars, and Alexander McQueen’s Bell Dress for the Who Is It (2004) music video.

6. robotBjörk, Still from All Is Full of Love, directed by Chris Cunningham, 1999.
Credit: Courtesy Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian

With the Songlines area of the show, the museum’s exhibition designers have tried to create a way to allow visitors to experience Björk’s music in a pleasant environment with a few visual elements. The audio devices are easy to use and slowly guide visitors through the galleries and encourage them to spend time listening to Björk’s music while looking at the various objects that are on display. The problem is that five minutes of music from one album is not enough for some visitors and is too much for others. Another problem is that there isn’t much to look at and, if the visitor isn’t familiar with the album or the music videos for the songs, the costumes and props are of limited interest. I think the show would have worked much better if the music videos made for the songs on each album were also part of that album’s gallery space.

Unfortunately, there is a narrative recorded between samples of Björk’s music that I found distracting and unnecessary. It is called The Triumphs of a Heart: A Psychographic Journey Through the First Seven Albums of Björk. The poem is written by Björk’s good friend, the Icelandic poet Sjón, and read by the Icelandic actor Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir. It is the whimsical story of a country girl who moves to a city, discovers her sexuality, finds love, gets married and becomes a “girl mother” and a “mother girl” who wants to make the world a better place for her daughter. The fairytale is meant to be a poetic way of telling Björk’s story, but I don’t think it is strong enough to do her justice as an artist. It is a lovely little story and it works fine as part of the show’s catalog with photographs of young Björk. But visitors need to hear the story of Björk as a rigorous musician, creative collaborator, and fierce survivor, not just another narrative that perpetrates her pixie-like persona.

Next page: Björk on the connections between music, nature, and technology

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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.