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Alexander McQueen, Bell Dress (2004) and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter, ‘Medúlla’ hair piece (2004) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

This morning, three Hyperallergic editors — Elisa Wouk Almino, Jillian Steinhauer, and Benjamin Sutton — ventured out to see the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) latest foray into avant-garde pop star curating: Björk (an exhibition that needs no subtitle). The show consists of a number of scattered components: instruments used in the making of Biophilia (her 8th album), on view in the lobby; two custom-built boxes/theaters that show, respectively, the new MoMA-commissioned video for “Black Lake” and a looping retrospective of her music videos; and an installation called “Songlines,” which features dresses, props from videos, and notebooks in a maze-like series of rooms, accompanied by a 40-minute “experimental sound experience” called “The Triumphs of a Heart” that mixes Björk’s music and a fictional fairy tale.

None of us editors was very familiar with Björk before (Hrag, who is the Björk fan among us, couldn’t make it). It’s unclear how familiar we are with her now. Here, a discussion of the show.

*   *   *

From left to right: Bernhard Willhelm, ‘Volta’ Tour Dress, The Icelandic Love Corporation, Second Skin (2004) and Wild Woman Voodoo Granny Doll Crochet (2007/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Jillian Steinhauer: WELL, that was interesting. Do we start with the good or the bad? How about both? The good, for me: I left more into Björk as a musician than I’ve ever been before! The bad: holy hagiography.

Elisa Wouk Almino: The good: I got to see Björk in person dressed as a cactus. (She was there for three minutes, partially visible behind lots of journalists.) The bad: I think my headset told me that to feel like an underwater jellyfish is to experience a higher mode of being.

Benjamin Sutton: For me, the only good part was the exhibition’s lower level, where we got to watch her music videos. The bad: everything else. That being said, there were a couple of objects upstairs, in the “Björk: The Ride” portion of the show, that I really liked. What were some of your favorite future Hard Rock Café artifacts from the show?

Some of Björk’s notebooks in the “Songlines” portion of the exhibition (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

JS: I think you mean “Björk: The Experience.” (Sorry, readers, it’s actually called “Songlines.”) And honestly, I had trouble concentrating on any of them because I was so distracted by the horrible audio droning on in my ears: “You have been given a heart, which rests on your chest”; “The girl’s body had become home to a new heart — a tiny baby’s girl’s heart.” I was disheartened to learn that the script was penned by an actual writer named Sjón.

I suppose I liked seeing her notebooks and handwriting. The dresses were cool, but I just don’t have strong feelings about crazy designer dresses.

EWA: Yeah, in some ways I was more surprised by the mannequin Björk heads than the elaborate dresses themselves. And based on those notebooks that sound like the utterances of an angsty teenager (some of them do, actually, date to her childhood), I would think Björk wrote the script. That being said, the notebooks are one of the few items that revealed something about her work process.

Iris van Herpen, ‘Biophilia’ Dress (2011) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

BS: Agreed. That lack of anything even remotely informative about her work and creative process is what, for me, made it not just an underwhelming exhibition, but a seriously bad one. I think her videos and the collaborations she’s done with artists and designers — everyone from her former partner Matthew Barney and the Dutch duo Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin to Alexander McQueen and Marjan Pejoski — are worthy fodder for a museum show, but this one is so conceptually compromised and flimsily assembled that I spent most of today’s preview in disbelief that I was actually at MoMA.

JS: This is probably just me being me, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a bit of sexism at work here. I feel like if this were a show celebrating a male musician, we’d get more than just dresses and music videos — which, although they look awesome on a big screen in a comfy makeshift theater, are, after all, available to watch at home on your computer. Did either of your learn anything today that you didn’t already know about Björk?

EWA: I learned, thanks to the “Black Lake” video, that Björk has a deep connection with rocks.

JS: Ha!

EWA: I do honestly think she takes her love of rocks seriously.

Installation view, ‘Björk’ at MoMA (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

BS: I dunno, I learned that Björk probably drives a Volkswagen now — at least I hope she does, in light of how heavily VW-branded this show is. (The “innovative technology” for “Songlines” is based on an app developed by Volkswagen.) As far as the sexism question, Jillian, I don’t know. I haven’t seen an equivalent exhibition devoted to a male musician. I guess we’ll have to wait for the inevitable Beck retrospective.

JS: I didn’t see the David Bowie retrospective, but it seemed to suffer from similar problems, so that would perhaps be a useful comparison. I feel like this gets at the question of how to present these types of artists in a museum setting. I agree that Björk seems worthy of a show, but it seemed like MoMA had no idea what to do with her or how to create one to emphasize her actual artistry. So they went for spectacle.

EWA: We did have to stand in three different lines for puzzlingly long amounts of time. One line that was somewhat worth the wait was for the new video MoMA commissioned, “Black Lake” — the visuals were actually quite stunning.

Still from Björk’s and director Andrew Thomas Huang’s “Black Lake” video (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

JS: Agreed. I think “Black Lake” drove home for me that Björk’s best medium is the music video. It made me wish the show was more intensely focused on that aspect of her work, on breaking down how those get made, especially since they seem so collaborative.

BS: Yeah, “Black Lake” was beautiful, but even that was overwrought. The architectural installation — by The Living — seemed superfluous and incredibly inconsiderate. Like curator Klaus Biesenbach and Björk decided: “Let’s cover the walls with soft, plush things, then make people sit on the floor!” [Maniacal laughter.] And the video plays simultaneously on two screens on either side of the room in some feeble attempt at creating an “immersive” experience. Why not just have one screen and more of those cushioned red cubes from the adjacent music video theater?

Instruments for ‘Biophilia’: Björgvin Tómasson and Matt Nolan’s Gameleste and Björgvin Tómasson’s Pipe Organ (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

JS: I don’t know, I didn’t mind the floor so much — at least we were allowed to sit. Can I just mention that I thought the instruments in the lobby were super cool, probably my favorite part? Although I was disappointed to miss the Tesla coil — the wall text said it was there, but I couldn’t find it.

EWA: Yeah, I don’t think there was substantial enough wall text throughout. I’m all for an exhibition that privileges experience over information, but I think some context would have made the show less fragmentary and confusing.

BS: Maybe, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, that’s why we were all so intensely disappointed by the exhibition: we were expecting an exhibition. Had we shown up to preview “The Tunnel of Björk” — and had said tunnel flowed a little more smoothly — we would have liked it?

JS: But if we wanted “The Tunnel of Björk,” wouldn’t we have gone to alterna–Walt Disney World?

BS: That’s exactly where we went.

Shaun Leane, Feather Ear Pieces (2003/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Alexander McQueen, “Pagan Poetry” Dress (2001), and Matthew Barney, ‘Verspertine’ Music Box (2001) and ‘Vespertine Live’ Shoes (2001) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Chris Cunningham, “All Is Full of Love” Robots (1999) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Detail of one of Chris Cunningham’s “All Is Full of Love” Robots (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Coat from “Jóga” Music Video (1997) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Bernhard Willhelm, Body Sculpture (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Björk ephemera and photos (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Val Garland, Crystal Mask (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Installation view, the “Songlines” portion of Björk at MoMA (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Sean Hellfritsch and Isaiah Saxon, “Wanderlust” Painbody Head, Costume, and Yak (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

The entrance to “Songlines” (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

The music video room (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

A view of Andrew Cavatorta’s Gravity Harps (2011), used on Björk’s album ‘Biophilia,’ in the MoMA lobby (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Björk’s and director Stephane Sednaoui’s “Big Time Sensuality” video (1993), projected on a large wall at MoMA (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Björk will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown East, Manhattan) from March 8 through June 7.

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E. Wouk Almino, J. Steinhauer, B. Sutton

Elisa Wouk Almino, Jillian Steinhauer, and Benjamin Sutton are all editors of Hyperallergic.

41 replies on “What Just Happened? The Björk Experience at MoMA”

  1. Seems like this is just a throw up for Biesenbach ease MoMA into a Lady Gaga show, and then we might as well burn the “museum” to the ground …

      1. It’s the first time I’ve ever said it. I mean c’mon she’s a great performance artist, but a major museum show in conjunction with a new album release? This is a new kind of kaynewestdom …

        Can we have a Nick Cave/Nick Cave exhibit instead?

  2. Seems like the curators preferred fandom over making the connection between pop icon, artistry and artistic process.

  3. 100% agreed– I thought this was an absolutely shoddy excuse for a ‘mid-career retrospective.’ There was barely anything about her innovative technology, and barely a mention of her trend-setting (and smashing!) collaborations with the now-legends of fashion and music video she discovered. No video interviews, and sadly, the sheets of music tacked up on the wall at the beginning seemed like an after-thought. Was very, very underwhelmed. I feel sorry for the folks who are coming from all around the world to see this… you could basically watch a halfway decent BBC documentary and get the same experience. Even the exhibit catalog seems weak!

  4. Do you think that this was an attempt of summarizing who she was as an artist/musician before a release of her album so that more people who aren’t familiar with her, as I am, that it’s to market to the audiences that maybe she can’t seem to reach otherwise? And now an article? Sounds like the plan worked. The museum curators took a risk. Quite interesting, actually.

    1. no, Klaus needs an editor. this show was poorly curated, which was so unfortunate considering the brilliant source material. The Black Lake video, however, is STUNNING and will make your heart ache

      1. I agree on the poorly curated comment, but I think it’s more complicated than that. I am an artist and I have curated too. One thing I have learned is that a good curator has to be a good editor as well. Some artists have a great sense of knowing what work will lend itself to an exhibition, but some do not. There are numerous problems that you may be presented with when curating such as: I have made studio visits where an artist will throw a chaotic studio full of work at you, not having a clue what works best with what, or what their best work is with respects to the concept behind an exhibition. It is your job to edit the chaos into an exhibit that makes sense and shows the artist at their best. Selection and hanging are major parts of this process. Curators must be wary of strong personalities who think everything they have ever done should be included and then there are artists who are only interested in exhibiting what they are working on at the moment, which is not always what you have in mind… Another problem is curators who are so smitten with an artist that they can’t refuse the artist’s insistence on certain works to be included, etc… When I curate it’s an act of love first, and sometimes love requires a strong hand. I always want my artists to come away from their time with me feeling loved. I want them to feel as though they have been represented and presented in the best way possible. I would be very careful with an artist like Bjork, as she is excessively detailed in her rendering and if not handled with care .. Well, you see what happens …

  5. I’m curious as to what is a “fictional fairy tale” and, what is an “underwater jelly fish?”

  6. Let’s start with where this entire article got it wrong:

    “None of us editors was very familiar with Björk before (Hrag, who is the Björk fan among us, couldn’t make it). It’s unclear how familiar we are with her now. Here, a discussion of the show.”

    What kind of publication sends three completely unfamiliar editors to an exhibition of which one should be highly familiar with to appreciate? Let alone review. And before you rebut with the “oh, but it’s art and it doesn’t matter if we don’t know anything about the subject, we’re still supposed to be able to appreciate it” argument, don’t.

    Björk isn’t trying to sell a new album. If anything, she’s flaunting her pain for her ex to see by choosing a venue where he, too, famously exhibited his artwork. (MoMA in San Francisco, not New York.)

    Perhaps what should have been given to accompany you through the exhibition was book of lyrics associated with each piece–most heartbreakingly of which…is “Black Lake”. The mere fact that you could trivialize such piece of incredible languish down to “she likes rocks” shows that you entirely missed the point. Entirely.

    This exhibit isn’t for you. It isn’t for anyone unfamiliar to Björk, especially those so eager to criticize her or her body of work. It isn’t for Elisa, or Jillian, or Benjamin.

    It’s for her fans. It’s for us, who have been with her from the beginning and through the unbearable. (I’m still confused by Médulla. I could have done without most of Volta. And Biophilia was…a fun experiment.)

    And, most of all, it’s for Hrag…who has to sit by and watch as you mock one of his heros, defenselessly, because he couldn’t be there. I seriously hope you get him a ticket and let him give us his own impressions. I’d appreciate hearing from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    *steps off soapbox*

    1. Hi Brooks, While I’m a fan, she’s not my hero … though I admit to really liking her 🙂 . I also do think an exhibition should speak to different kind of audiences, particularly at a touristy institution like MoMA. It does sound like there was a breakdown here. I will be visiting today. Can’t wait to see it.

      1. I’m going Sunday. First thing. Hopefully I’ll run into a few more fans there as well. 😉

    2. Bjork did just release an album, Vulnicura, which contains Black Lake, and in general is her break up album with Barney. MOMA, specifically Beisenbach, has been courting Bjork to do a show for something like 10 years. This has been in the works long before her break up with Barney, and frankly to align her choice to place her mid-career retrospective at MOMA as some sort of revenge move is insulting her.

      Unfortunately, this exhibit is not just “for her fans”. It’s for everyone. You may not like that, but that’s the way art works. You are also dead wrong when you say it’s not for anyone who is “eager to criticize”. This article actually does nothing of the sort, and instead criticizes the curation of the show, which having seen the show, I have to agree with. It was poorly conceptualized, as well as laid out, and does a great disservice to this expansive, immersive, collaborative, and truly ground-breaking artist and musician.

      1. I preferred Rolling Stone’s review. They somehow managed to overlook (what I’ll agree sounds like) its terrible execution and focused on the body of work. This article does absolutely that. My example alone of the editor’s comments on “Black Lake” show that. Anyhow. I’m still looking forward to seeing it myself on Sunday… with the full knowledge and breadth of her talent.

        That Rolling Stone article can be read here, by the way:

        http://www.rollingstone.com/music/videos/go-inside-bjork-s-sumptuous-career-spanning-moma-retrospective-20150304

        1. I’ll have to read this review. Thanks for sharing! Overall, I do think you’ll enjoy the show. Looking past the weird layout and flow choices, it is really amazing to see her costumes and her journals, to see Big Time Sensuality projected on a two-story wall, the robots from All is Full of Love (however the audio guide did NOT have the song featured as you’re near that piece, which was SO disappointing.. but my audio guide kept messing up so maybe it was supposed to…). The show made me excited to go back and experience her catalog in my own home. I just think it could have been *more*. But as I mentioned in a comment I wrote on an earlier post, the Black Lake video is just unbelievable. Almost brought me to tears, it’s so heart-wrenching.

          Please come back and tell us what your thoughts are after you’ve visited! I’ve been dying to talk to people about this show cause it’s left me feeling so conflicted; completely inspired by her vision and breadth, but disappointed in the realization of the show in the physical sense.

  7. I just can’t trust these “art reviewers” who aren’t familiar with Bjork?? Um where have they been for 20 years? I venture to say they must have this job because of nepotism / cronyism and, like is sadly common for these rich kids, have positions they aren’t suited for – and little knowledge of the world around them. To me this review says more about the authors than it does about the show.

      1. Let’s start with where this entire article got it wrong:

        “None of us editors was very familiar with Björk before (Hrag, who is the Björk fan among us, couldn’t make it). It’s unclear how familiar we are with her now. Here, a discussion of the show.”

        What kind of publication sends three completely unfamiliar editors to an exhibition of which one should be highly familiar with to appreciate? Let alone review. And before you rebut with the “oh, but it’s art and it doesn’t matter if we don’t know anything about the subject, we’re still supposed to be able to appreciate it” argument, don’t.

    1. I feel the same. Bunch of morons that doesn’t know about bjork?? hello where the hell have you been!

      1. i don’t know much about her either(except for her connections with Matthew Barney, brilliant artist btw.), but i’m convinced Museum of Modern Art is not a place for commercial music stars. Why Bjork, not Beatles, Madonna, or Cranberries, or Nirvana? or maybe Michael Jackson? Do you think they are less “Art”?. Let them all show in MoMA instead of this public losers calling themselves artists. I think Biesenbach should have been fired only for proposing Bjork as a show.

        1. iF YOU DONT KNOW MUCH ABOUT HER don’t write. That’s the problem about this review. tHE EDITORS ARE A BUNCH OF IDIOTS WORKING IN THE WRONG PLACE FOR THEM. I bet you don’t know that this isn’t the first show MOMA has done for a music artist? Have you heard about Kraftwerk? Did you know that there has been shows in Museum about Madonna and The Beatles??? shut up!

          1. You shut up. Open up museum of music and go there. I’ll go too actually. For Nirvana and Rolling Stones, and maybe i’m interested to see Richard Wagner process. there is museum of Sex, Natural History, M-me Tussaud, so open museum of Music and show musicians there. IT DOES NOT REALLY BELONG TO MOMA. i – I won’t go to MoMA and trashing their membership card only because of Bjork. I listening to her now- generic crap, what i think. They don’t have curators for music. And Biesenbach is complete incompetence in the field only because he is friends with Lady Gaga.

          2. I guess you are into fields and doesn’t know what the word MODERN nor ART is… It is a spectrum of manifestations! So please, go and live in your square world with a Museum for close minds… Like Museum For Rock Musicians that have died.

          3. Picasso, Pollock, Warhol all dead. The rest will die one day or another. It’s not essential. Product is. And Bjork it not Led Zeppelin, nor the Doors, not Sonic Youth and not Mozart either. She has big line before her to wait for a show it MoMA. Or at Museum of Music(give NYC mayor the idea) Yes, my mind is closed for third rate crap, you ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!

          4. Yeaps, definitely you are a moron and indeed BJORK isn’t Led Zeppelin, Nirvana etc….. The difference between you and me is i know about those talented musicians and rock legend that some have died and others still rocking and you, you don’t know what you are talking because you don’t know anything about Bjork. Once again before writing know about the topic- google Bjork, see her videos, etc, also read about Art and Modernity

        2. Bjork is not merely a pop star capable of being celebrity starf*cked! She has never courted mass appeal or celebrity like Madonna or Lady Gaga. The music she creates is so innovative and avant garde. The problem here is MOMA and the curator by putting on a pop culture exhibition to appeal to the masses and get the ticket counters buzzing. Which is something BJORK has NEVER done nor wanted with her work…. Even The Guardian acknowledged that Bjork is a multimedia artist worthy of a retrospective, even if this one did not necessarily do justice to her. And the whole point of calling it a future retrospective is to demonstrate just how ahead of the times and trendsetting she is. Seems like you have a problem with the fundamental premise of conceptualizing the musician as an artist. Either that or you have not done your research on Bjork before attending. Ohhhh, right! These HYPERALLERGIC EDITORS DIDNT! How can we trust these “art reviewers” who aren’t familiar with Bjork?? Plus as you said you barely know about her just that she was with Barney!

          1. Good memes spread. Best memes spread better. Genius memes spread everywhere.
            Trendsetting? Maybe Jefferson Airplane? I love musicians. but not Bjork in MoMA.
            Hamburgers also manifestation. of food made fast. They should have exhibit at MoMA too.

  8. Bjork is not merely a pop star capable of being celebrity starf*cked! She has never courted mass appeal or celebrity like Madonna or Lady Gaga. The music she creates is so innovative and avant garde. The problem here is MOMA and the curator by putting on a pop culture exhibition to appeal to the masses and get the ticket counters buzzing. Which is something BJORK has NEVER done nor wanted with her work…. Even The Guardian acknowledged that Bjork is a multimedia artist worthy of a retrospective, even if this one did not necessarily do justice to her. And the whole point of calling it a future retrospective is to demonstrate just how ahead of the times and trendsetting she is. Seems like you have a problem with the fundamental premise of conceptualizing the musician as an artist. Either that or you have not done your research on Bjork before attending. Ohhhh, right! These HYPERALLERGIC EDITORS DIDNT! How can we trust these “art reviewers” who aren’t familiar with Bjork??

  9. All of her albums and videos and ephemera are markers of her amazing history of project collaboration. Definitely agree that I would be interested in hearing about her processes involved instead of just showcasing the objects that filled the album booklets anyways.
    As a career-long fan, one thing I’ve always wanted more was insight in to her mastermind abilities, and how she was able to coordinate and coax so much from a vast group of artists to arrive at something that never veered from her aesthetic pursuits.

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