The release of a Björk video is more than just a release — it’s an event in itself. Tomorrow marks the release of “Utopia”, an album that continues Björk’s tradition of pushing music video boundaries. Lead single “The Gate” and the second video from the album, “Blissing Me”, have already been accrued a staggering level of hype. “The Gate” has even been treated to a physical installation premiere at London’s 180 The Strand. In this post-MTV age, Björk keeps the music video relevant in a way that few others can.
Björk has long understood the power of the moving image. Led by anything interesting — whether that’s art, fashion, nature or technology — her 25-year solo career has been defined by a restless energy and a prevailing sense of newness. She’s also an enthusiastic collaborator, assembling a connoisseur’s selection of creative practitioners; from Spike Jonze, to Alexander McQueen to Chris Cunningham, into formats that are often still in their infancy.
Björk’s unapologetic technophilia can be tracked through her music videos. Indeed, part of what makes her videos so exciting is her commitment to pushing available technology to its limits. She launched a website in the early ‘90s dark ages, was using 3D modelling in 1997, pioneered the “album app” and the virtual reality album with 2011’s “Biophilia” and 2015’s “Vulnicura” respectively, and “Utopia” will be available to purchase with a variety of cryptocurrencies.
“Debut” was released in the same period as Oasis’s “Morning Glory”. While most of her then peers are still touring their then hits (if they’re touring at all), Björk has gone on to have exhibitions at MoMA and in Tokyo, London and Barcelona, and her most recent collaborators are in their twenties.
We could select any 10 of Björk’s videos to demonstrate her impact on popular culture, but as well as her best known, we’ve charted some of the more unexpected and experimental titles to celebrate the lasting legacy of this musical icon.
“Big Time Sensuality” (1993, directed by Stéphane Sednaoui)
This album, and in particular this music video, marked the beginning of Björk’s post-Sugarcubes solo career. Shot in one day by photographer (and Jean Paul Gaultier protégé) Sednaoui, it’s a simple concept – ecstatic Björk dancing on a flat-bed truck as it drives through the streets of New York — but her charisma (not to mention cropped jumper/dress combo) carries it into the sublime.
“I Miss You” (1995, directed by John Kricfalusi)
The obvious choice from the “Post” album is the Spike Jonze directed “It’s Oh So Quiet”; orange clad, broadway-Björk frequently tops best music video lists. However, it’s Kricfalusi’s (an animator best known for “The Ren and Stimpy Show”) smutty, frantic, slightly gross cartoon, featuring a cameo from Fred Flintstone, which best showcases Björk’s awareness of the weird and wonderful reaches of pop culture and her oft-overlooked sense of mischief.
“All is Full of Love” (1997, directed by Chris Cunningham)
This video illustrates Björk’s willingness to see the music video as a standalone art form. Released two years after the song and using a different cut of “All is Full of Love” than the one on the album, it’s independent of the song in a way that music videos rarely are. Almost a visual exploration of Björk’s championing of technology, this piece would look new if it was made today. Aesthetically it was an obvious source of inspiration to 2004’s I, Robot, and in terms of tone it raises increasingly relevant questions of AI agency.
“Alarm Call” (1997, directed by Alexander McQueen)
A refreshingly sexy Björk, accompanied by a crocodile and a snake in a swamp setting, this is a playful, bouncy and very un-Alexander McQueen piece. But then that’s part of the magic of Björk; collaborators are able to explore their practice and the outcomes are often unexpected. (I’d add that Björk’s turn with the snake is an obvious precursor to Britney’s snake performance at the 2001 VMAs).
“Pagan Poetry” (2001, directed by Nick Knight)
Björk videos more often that not feature her lip-syncing against different backgrounds. Nick Knight, the fashion photographer now maybe best known for launching SHOWstudio, inverted this format. The video opens with heavily graphically manipulated footage of oral sex (Knight gave Björk her own camera and told her to “film your love life”), and when lip-syncing Björk does appear she is sewing herself into a McQueen dress, naked from the waist up. A ban from MTV USA ensured the video gained a level of notoriety, and this piece launched Knight’s music video career; he went on to produce videos for Massive Attack and Lady Gaga.
“Cocoon” (2001, directed by Eiko Ishioka)
Music videos can tend towards the literal, as with Paul White’s 1997 “Hunter”, in which we see her face flicker between human (hunter) and bear (hunted!). “Cocoon”, by Eiko Ishioka (a Japanese designer whose work included advertisements for Parco, and the costume design for Bam Stocker’s “Dracula”) sees Björk literally cocooned inside red threads which unspool from her nipples. Obvious in description, but visually arresting (and the black, red and white aesthetic is echoed in Christina Aguilera’s later, and infamous, “Fighter’” video).
“Who Is It” (2004, directed by Dawn Shadforth)
Picture the Icelandic queen in the midst of a volcanic landscape, in a bell-shaped and bell-covered McQueen dress, with bell-wielding children and a pair of huskies. Björk video or spoof? Somehow “Who Is It” just works, the result, more than anything, is fun.
“Declare Independence” (2008, directed by Michael Gondry)
Michael Gondry, who also co-wrote the screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”, is a long term member of the Björk extended family, having also directed the video for “Bachelorette” in 1997. The highlights here are the Victorian invention-esque painting machine, and Bjork holding a kind of paint gun at her audience.
“Stonemilker” (2015, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang)
Björk’s first 3D album was particularly visually exciting, with highlights including “Mouth Mantra”, a video of solely the inside of Björk’s mouth. Huang’s piece, which features Björk in a neon yellow Van der Ham dress on Beach Island (the same beach where the song’s lyrics were written), is both epic and intensely personal. It was filmed in one 360 degree shot, meaning you can literally follow Björk by panning the screen, which gives the work an eerie, infinite quality.
“Blissing Me” (2017, directed by Tim Walker)
Not to be upstaged by “The Gate”, “Blissing Me” is a unique, particularly British collaboration. Directed by fashion photographer Tim Walker and featuring a dress designed by Glasgow-born Pam Hogg, this video employs a minimalism atypical of Walker’s fantastical, elaborate shoots. Opening with an image of the nape of Björk’s neck sprayed red, it consists entirely of her dancing in a surreal costume against an off-white background.
To call her a master of reinvention would be incorrect — she is very consistently Björk — but what ensures her work remains relevant is that the “formula” she sticks to is one of constant experimentation. Even persistent collaborators don’t settle for the same style and her albums famously oscillate and react against one another. Music videos continue to be central to this practice, and what better medium for a musician who has never been ‘just’ a musician.