Alongside Björk’s chiming gameleste and hypnotic gravity harp, a Tesla coil hangs from the ceiling of MoMA’s main atrium. Bolts of plasma flash from the centre; percussive cracks and crunches of the electric discharge roar across the hall, recreating the steady but unconventional beats that background Björk’s signature wail as visitors enter. Though only occupying a few rooms in MoMA’s expansive mid-town space, the message rings clear: Björk has arrived.
A lot has been said about Björk’s “Mid-career Retrospective” at MoMA. The initial wave of blows questioning the institution’s integrity followed the press conference almost immediately; a second round of disappointed critics mourned the lacklustre treatment of Björk’s body of work came shortly thereafter. The overwhelmingly negative buzz preceded the exhibit when it opened on Sunday, 8 March, but how much of it was deserved?
A do-it-all at heart, one of Björk’s most striking qualities is how she remains in control of her artistic direction, finding the perfect candidate to help realise her vision precisely as she sees it. In a discussion with MoMA Director Glen Lowry, Klaus Biesenbach explained his initial pitch to Björk in 2012: design a retrospective for where you will be in three years. While the show’s organisation and flow seems a bit spotty (the show deserved more than its “a room here, a hall there” treatment), the Björk exhibit succeeds in exploring the evolution of a contemporary artist still growing, still working and still coming of age.
The second floor of the MoMA features two dark rooms. On one side, red couches rest under a massive screen on which the music videos for “All Is Full Of Love”, “Bachelorette” and other Björk classics play on loop. “Black Lake”, a 10-minute video work commissioned by MoMA and the official music video for the centrepiece track of her latest album, is projected on the walls of the hall directly opposite. Linking the two rooms conceptually is “Songlines”, an installation that weaves through the third floor. The tour flows through Björk’s outfits, sketches, props and album covers as actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir retells Björk’s life story spun into a fable by Icelandic poet Sjón. While “Songlines” is heavily sentimental–the iPhone audio guide is continually referred to as “your Heart” in the exhibit’s introduction–it illuminates Björk’s trajectory as an artist, as a lover and as a mother from the smiling girl with Bantu knots in “Big Time Sensuality” to the writhing siren in “Black Lake”.
But what’s all this doing in an art museum? According to MoMA’s website, “The Museum of Modern Art is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world.” It continues with a series of commandments, including: “To remain at the forefront of its field, the Museum must have an outstanding professional staff and must periodically reevaluate itself, responding to new ideas and initiatives with insight, imagination, and intelligence.”
The MoMA has, admittedly, toed the line between curating for the public and curating publicity stunts (that benefit, mostly, themselves) – Curator-at-Large/BFF-to-James-Franco Klaus Biesenbach has a notoriously larger-than-life social media presence and affinity to pop-culture artists like Kraftwerk, Jay-Z and Marina Abramovic. It seems trite, however, to dismiss Björk’s groundbreaking audio and visual art work on account of her red carpet appearances. A quick glance at her interview with Pitchfork shows the multidisciplinary importance of Björk’s oeuvre, as well as the thorough structures and concepts she has developed for herself.
Snobbery aside, Björk’s “Mid-career Retrospective” is a valuable relic of the artist’s process, elaborating her personal and artistic history and culminating in a new work that demonstrates what she’s learned.
Over the course of her career, Björk’s shared her stage with Spike Lee, Iris van Herpen, Bernhard Willhelm and countless “high-society” names that have undoubtedly influenced her development and realisation as an artist; MoMA is just the latest collaborator shaping and being shaped by her all-encompassing vision. Deal with it.
Text by Nathan Ma
“Björk” will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until 8 June 2015.