“Imagine a future and be in it,” Björk sings in “Tabula Rasa,” the final song before the encore of ‘Cornucopia,’ an elaborate audiovisual production commissioned by The Shed, Manhattan’s brand new, state-of-the-art performance space.
The line appears earlier in the show, projected on a scrim, amidst a manifesto for a brighter tomorrow: an allegorical island teeming with the animal-plant hybrids that appear in the lush visuals accompanying the performance. Citing the Paris Climate Accord as an exemplum of utopian ideation, the manifesto implores the audience to confront our impending climate cataclysm by breaking out of antiquated ways of problem-solving: “Our past is on loop,” the text proclaims, “Turn it off.”
With ‘Cornucopia,’ Björk continues to develop the rigorous intellectual and political questions posed on her latest album, ‘Utopia,’ collaborating with a massive ensemble to imagine a future liberated from the prescriptive precedent of history.
Swamp sprite realness
As the title and media fanfare promised, ‘Cornucopia’ spills over The Shed’s proscenium, lavishing upon the audience a surfeit of sounds, sights, text, and ideas—a sumptuous and savoury feast that can be ingested, but not digested, in its 100-minute duration.
Something tells me that’s precisely the point. It’s difficult to know where to look throughout the show: two semi-translucent curtains, comprised of dangling cables, open and close between and during songs, providing an ever-shifting screen for visuals (designed by Tobias Gremmler) of plants morphing, often erotically, into hybrid organic forms (à la ‘Annihilation’). Meanwhile Viibra, an Icelandic flautist septet, attend upon Björk like a Greek chorus as she hops between the fungus pads that comprise the stage. Björk and the ensemble periodically retreat to a reverb chamber—a tall, vaguely yonic chapel with a Gothic dome—as if to steal a moment’s prayer; even the percussionist (Manu Delago) charts a peripatetic course across the stage, playing a series of novel, bespoke instruments.
Oh, and everyone’s serving some mutant swamp sprite realness, thanks to wardrobing from fashion house Balmain, masks crafted by wonderful weirdo James Merry, and makeup by distorted drag pioneer Hungry. Wait, okay, there’s also the 50-odd members of the Hamrahlíð Choir on the stage; oh yeah, and a harpist; and, and, and…
Yet by no means is ‘Cornucopia’ gluttonous. It’s what I imagine a meal at Noma to be like: ornate but restrained, abstract but candid, cerebral but spiritual, irregular but intentional. The care in each artistic decision reveals the presence of some demiurgic principle scrupulously coordinating chaos to convey narrative and trigger emotion, contemplation, and action.
The Hamrahlíð choir opens the show, on risers set before the stage, singing a cappella arrangements of Björk songs (“Cosmogony,” “Sonnets/Unrealities XI”) alongside musical settings of poems by some of Iceland’s most important authors.
The opening number, “Ísland farsælda Frón” sets the words of Jónas Hallgrímsson, Iceland’s foremost Romantic poet and an early advocate of independence, to a stately medieval melody. The poem first appeared in 1835 in the inaugural issue of Fjölnir, a periodical intended to revive Icelandic cultural identity and kindle fervor for an independence movement. A nostalgic paean to bygone glory, Jónas focuses on an image of Alþingi, now overgrown and disused, to communicate the transience and decline of Iceland’s distinguished antiquity. With its dystopian outlook, the song serves as a logical departure point for the utopian reverie that is ‘Cornucopia.’
The choir, comprised entirely of millennials in partial national costume, conveys the possibilities of a future fortified by the past, but not tethered to it: later, they return to the beautiful chaos onstage in white robes, as if having attained some paradigm-shifting apotheosis.
The past is on loop
The perceived conflict between past and future permeates ‘Cornucopia’; nowhere is this clearer than in Björk’s treatment of her earlier works. In a pared down rendition of “Venus As a Boy,” her vocals compete against the melody and rhythm of the flute accompaniment; “Isobel” becomes clangorous and disjointed, thanks to erratic percussive intervention; and “Pagan Poetry” is turned inside out, beginning with its wistful outro. With these deconstructed, reconstructed classics, Björk proves herself unburdened by the expectations that typically accompany an oeuvre as long and eminent as hers, and she doesn’t want her audience to feel complacent either. The visual obfuscation created by the set, and Merry’s face-obscuring masks, emphasises this urge to reject the comfort of the familiar in pursuit of something inconceivably jarring and new.
Still, not all the reimagined classics problematise palatability: the lyrical clarity and melodic straightforwardness of an a cappella “Hidden Place” (with the choir) transform it into a gorgeous, sparse soliloquy; on “Mouth’s Cradle,” a thumping drum pulse provides a rare moment of rhythmic regularity.
The renditions from ‘Utopia’ more closely resemble their recorded counterparts—this is, after all, a ‘Utopia’-era project. These songs, however, are already challenging and asymmetrical by design: the monologic “Body Memory” wends a ponderous, meandering path between the prosaic (“This fucking mist!”), the existential (“Do I accept this ending?”), and the erotic (“Bosoms and embraces”). On “Sue Me,” Björk’s vocal ferocity and colloquial candidness make her anti-patriarchal rage palpable and rousing.
Still, some tracks retain an uncharacteristic melodic coherence. Following the choral introduction, Björk begins with a lush, pulsating version of “The Gate” whilst (aptly) the curtain opens haltingly—the individual cords of the scrim sway with each tug, echoing her raspy and vulnerable supplication: “Care for me, care for me, care for me.”
State of Emergency
In ‘Cornucopia,’ coherence, linearity, and familiarity are indulgences rather than givens, underscoring the overarching imperative to reject comfort and precedent in search of a better future. As on ‘Utopia,’ Björk illustrates her knack for shattering the solipsism of the lyric moment, collaborating with an accomplished team of artists to unearth the universal impulses and implications of subjective experience. Facing an imminent ecological crisis, this collaborative, universal ethic is crucial to survival; individualism and tradition need not be hurdles to progress, but they’re also not ends in themselves.
In the lull before the encore, a projected image of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg declares: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.” Musically and theatrically, Cornucopia echoes this denunciation of “possibility”—a tub of water can be an instrument, a flute can be an extra limb, and a concert can be an allegorical manifesto. Imagination flows seamlessly into action, like two sides of a breath, without a moment’s hesitation: so too, in our sprint towards ecological collapse, we just don’t have the luxury of holding our breath.
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