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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.
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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?
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.
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.
EWA: I do honestly think she takes her love of rocks seriously.
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.
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?
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.
Björk will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown East, Manhattan) from March 8 through June 7.