Björk Retrospective at MoMA

Björk's iconic swan dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards.

Björk's iconic swan dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards.

Björk at MoMA runs through June 7, 2015.

Though Björk’s elaborate costumes, visuals and concepts are inextricable to her artistic persona, ultimately her music is the substance of her art practice. How then, does the Museum of Modern Art begin to showcase something as intangible as music—not as ambiance, but as the main attraction? MoMA’s challenge in creating Björk’s mid-career retrospective was to frame and contain a Björk experience, and make it compelling and innovative enough to draw visitors.

Costumes from the 2007 album Volta.

Costumes from the 2007 album Volta.

What brings Björk to MoMA are her two decades as an innovative musician, singer, and composer as well as her experimental multimedia projects. MoMA seeks to bring its audience a synesthesia of sound, tactility and visuals that is otherwise absent in the single act of listening to Björk’s music or watching her music videos.

On the third floor is Songlines, accessible only by a timed ticket. Songlines is an interactive, location-based audio tour that guides you through the gallery. The audio experience, titled“Triumphs of the Heart,” is a chronological mix of of Björk’s albums overlayed with a spoken fable-narrative, written by Icelandic writer Sjón. Notebooks with lyrics, sketches and other bits of Björk memorabilia are displayed in glass while mannequins model Björk’s concert costumes, like an avant-garde department store display. The length of the audio suggests that you linger in each album space before moving on, allowing the audio to interact with the physical exhibit. Still, there isn’t enough to sustain visual interest as the audio runs its course; the gallery objects feel inanimate. Songlines relies too heavily on Björk’s costumes and props.

Robot lovers with Björk facial features from the 1999 music video "All is Full of Love."

Robot lovers with Björk facial features from the 1999 music video "All is Full of Love."

On the second floor in the Atrium are two screening rooms. One cinema room screens a two-hour survey of 32 of Björk’s 40 music videos, which integrate Björk’s avant-garde sound and aesthetics into one. In her music videos, Björk interacts with her elaborate costumes and props and in doing so, creates new personas and narratives. In divorcing  Björk’s costumes and props from the music videos and displaying them in the Songlines exhibit, MoMA de-contextualizes them and renders them into static objects.

Björk’s mid-career retrospective coincides with the release of her newest album Vulnicura, meaning “cure for wounds,” an album created after her painful separation from artist Matthew Barney, her partner of thirteen years. MoMA commissioned the music video “Black Lake” for Bjork's newest album Vulnicura, and screens it in a custom-designed theater next to the cinema room. This theater installation (read about its design and construction here) was envisioned as an extension of the Icelandic terrain where the video was shot, soundproofed with barnacle-like wall protrusions. Barefoot amidst sharp rocks with her body constricted by a leather dress, Björk conveys a vulnerability in both corporeal and emotional forms in this video. Her devastation is laid bare and brings some insight, finally, into Björk's emotional being.

Costume designed by Alexander McQueen from the 2001 music video "Pagan Poetry."

Costume designed by Alexander McQueen from the 2001 music video "Pagan Poetry."

The spoken biographical/fantasy narrative from the audio guides felt whimsical and vague, and didn’t delve deeply into Björk artistic process. However, after the screening of “Black Lake,” the themes of Vulnicura and Björk’s work and persona came together into something that felt relatable, fragile, and real. The exhibition told the story of an artist whose identity and emotional being felt secure in partnership, motherhood and family. Yet these roles could not protect her from the vulnerability of the mind and body in the aftermath of heartbreak. Björk may seem otherworldly, yet her passions and her frailties are grounded and sincere.

Written by Kaila Chan

Still from Björk's music video "Black Lake," commissioned by MoMA.

Still from Björk's music video "Black Lake," commissioned by MoMA.