If you’ve read coverage of the recently opened Björk retrospective at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, chances are you’ve read a searing critique ripping the exhibit, its curator, and the museum to shreds.
Art critics from esteemed publications have seized upon the exhibit with smug glee, in a display of snark one-upmanship: “A Strangely Unambitious Hotchpotch,” “State of Emergency: Biesenbach’s Björk Show Turns MoMA Into Planet Hollywood,” “MoMA’s Embarrassing Björk Crush,” “MoMA’s Björk Disaster.” The reviews are boringly consistent: the critics fawn over Björk’s decades-long career of envelope-pushing music; they pivot around a “but” and lambaste the exhibit, faulting the same aspects (fussy technology, “naïve” poetry, tacky mannequins, and a dearth of things); then, they assert that their beef is with Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibit’s curator, and with MoMA, not Björk; they leave off feeling embarrassed for Björk, wishing—for her sake—that the exhibit had never gone forward in the first place, but ultimately writing it off as an unfortunate goof in a career that is impressive enough to survive this awkward episode.
The problem with this sentiment—beyond it being totally patronising—is that, no matter how many times they assert that this is Biesenbach’s or MoMA’s embarrassing fuckup, they’ve still thrown Björk under the bus with the lot of them. She took part in conceiving and executing the exhibit—but the critics downplay her agency so they can aim at Biesenbach and MoMA. They can’t have it both ways. Björk had a hand in it, too. And by the way, it’s really not bad.
Titled “Björk,” the retrospective has four components. A number of instruments constructed for ‘Biophilia’ (2011) play intermittently in the museum lobby. The rest of the exhibit is housed in a temporary structure in the atrium: in one room the video for “Black Lake” from ‘Vulnicura’ (2015), plays on two facing screens; in another, music videos for songs from ‘Debut’ (1993) to ‘Biophilia’ (2011) play on a loop. The heart of the exhibit, and the subject of critical vitriol, is “Songlines,” a winding path that guides the visitor through the seven studio albums of Björk’s solo career.
I burn off layer by layer
Before ”Black Lake” begins, a message on each of the facing screens instructs visitors to walk throughout the space during the course of the video. No one follows the instruction: several sit, most stand in place. The new video, directed by frequent collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang, plays simultaneously on the screens. At times there’s variation between them, but it feels like two cuts of the same thing. The twinning does little except say, “This is different.” Perhaps the effect would be more palpable had visitors accepted the invitation to wander, like Björk who wanders through a dim cave in the first half of the video. But “Black Lake,” on either screen, is good. Björk is at her rawest, singing some of the most confessional and heartbreaking lyrics in her oeuvre-to-date. Blue lava erupts and oozes. She reaches the open air and transforms, shedding layers, suspended above an archetypal mossy Icelandic lava field.
In the next theatre, a larger space with ample cushions, 36 music videos play in chronological order. I had seen them all on my laptop screen over the years, but seeing them on a big screen makes them fresh and unfamiliar. If a retrospective is a showcase of an artist’s prominent works over time, this room is the best realisation of a retrospective in the whole exhibit. In her music videos, Björk melds minds with other visionaries—filmmakers, animators, designers—to create a captivating audio-visual universe. But the accessibility of music videos—the fact that anyone with computer access can see them—necessitates something more. Hence, “Songlines.”
My headphones saved my life
“Songlines” takes the visitor, equipped with an audio guide and headphones, through seven rooms, filled with costumes, music video props, notebooks, and ephemera related to each of her solo studio albums (excepting ‘Vulnicura’). The audio tour, a lyric essay written by Sjón and read by Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, tells the story of a girl who grew up in a lava field in a forest by the ocean, or something like that. It’s hard to look at the objects and pay attention to the narrative at the same time—not to mention, there are location-triggered sound bytes that interrupt if you step in certain spots—but I suspect that neither Sjón, nor Björk, nor Biesenbach intended every visitor to listen to every word on the track. It’s poetry you can tune in and out of and still find meaning in. This narration has been the subject of much critique. Some (mostly men, by the way) see it as further infantilising Björk, whose apparent naïvety and girlish tone have often been used to distract or detract from her artistic achievement. Those same critics must not have been listening as the narrator speaks of physical and metaphysical penetrations, or as that purported little girl becomes a woman, a mother, a warrior. There’s a deep sexuality, a frankness, and a darkness that is hidden behind deliberately saccharine language. Yes, there is irony here, dry Icelandic irony; but it also leaves room to take itself seriously. Isn’t that Björk’s charm?
The things that comprise the exhibit are, indeed, few. Much has been made of this paucity, but I can’t help but see humility in it. Björk is an artist of language and song, and these remain front-and-centre in the exhibit. We hear songs from her discography over headphones, and the ubiquity of notebooks throughout the exhibit allows us to see Björk toying with words and notes on paper. There is something to be said about her bilingualism—how she thinks in Icelandic and English. Sometimes the two languages express the same sentiment, as in the lyrics for “Hafnar-lag” (“Harbour-song”) to which is appended the English translation, “The Anchor Song.” At other times the languages converse with each other. The marginalia demonstrate the playful imagination and voracious curiosity that make Björk’s work so enchanting and challenging: “Germs are cleverer than men,” she writes in one notebook; “Epinoia (feminine wisdom),” she glosses elsewhere, referring to the Gnostic notion of a grammatically and inherently feminine form of Wisdom. I don’t understand why critics have given these manuscripts short shrift; here we see the exercises and experiments that led to the finished product that the very same critics laud. Like, aren’t you a little curious?
To risk all is the end all
After the notebooks, costumes are the most prevalent artefacts. Yes, the swan dress, okay. Most stunning is the Alexander McQueen dress made entirely of jingle bells, which Björk wore in the video for “Who Is It?” Various props and set pieces from music videos fill out the rest of the exhibit—the lovemaking robots from “All Is Full Of Love,” a yak from “Wanderlust.” The selection of props and costumes is inconsistent: some rooms (‘Volta’) are richer, some noticeably spare (‘Biophilia’). I breeze through in 20 minutes, dissatisfied, but the second time around, I take my time, listen to the story of transformations and beginnings and endings, and take it for what it’s worth.
Yes, the exhibit is imperfect; but so is Björk’s music. That’s kind of the point. She has the musical acumen, voice, and lyrical gift to create music that is digestible or successful, but there’s no challenge in that. Björk’s music is so memorable because you feel that she is experimenting in the moment. Her songs never feel like the real “thing”—each feels like one iteration of infinitely configurable components, or one sudden, ephemeral overflowing of lyricism from a much deeper well. With “Songlines,” the “thing” is not a song, but a life, a career. No configuration of notebooks, costumes, music videos, or lyric essays will represent the “thing” that is Björk’s career, but they can try to evoke that.
The exhibit is no jaw-dropping slam-dunk, but the critics’ catastrophic parlance is empty hyperbole—an attempt to gripe over MoMA’s popularising tendencies. This is no volcanic cataclysm; it’s an exhibit in an art museum, okay? It’s an attempt to showcase the career of a prolific, elusive artist and experimenter whose insatiable curiosity and collaborative work ethic have realised an expansive world of sounds and sights. Perhaps MoMA was not the proper venue for the exhibit; perhaps no museum would fit the bill. But then, what would? None of those clever, sour critics seems to disagree that Björk deserves the degree of recognition that comes with an exhibit of this stature, but neither does any describe what a good Björk retrospective would look like. I was happy to set aside a couple hours to see Björk’s lyrical process on paper, to listen more closely to her music, and to follow, vaguely, the transformation of the woman who appears on the cover of her albums. Am I participating in the death of “high art?”
Possibly maybe go fuck yourself.