Thursday, April 16, 2015

MoMA on Björk

I was in New York City and had to see Björk’s “mid-career retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The show opened to nearly terrible reviews, promptly followed with a backlash of positive reviews. Knowing plenty about music, Iceland, and Björk’s career, I thought this would be the chance to make my own informed decision.

I first entered the small theatre space set up for the MoMA-commissioned piece ‘Black Lake’ off her newest album, ‘Vulnicura’. This piece, despite being in a cramped space, was by far the best of the show. The ten-minute piece spies on Björk writhing around in a chillingly dark wet lava tube in Iceland, from which she emerges to battle her own inner turmoil, before finally walking with a calm and acceptance through a mossy green lava field. The experience is filmed on two opposing screens, and some of the footage is identical, though much of it deters off the path, filmed from a second angle or edit. The surround-sound recording with intense bass presence is moving, and well-suited for the space. This is Björk at her finest, the merging of nature and technology, of concept and delivery.
After this, the rest of the show was all over the map. I didn’t even venture into the small theatre featuring all of Björk’s music videos, as it was brimming over right to the door with guests. And mind you, this was a Tuesday morning, not even a weekend. Some of Björk’s custom-made instruments are on display, like the gamaleste, a fusion celeste-gamelan, and her Biophilia-era ‘gravity harps’ which look a bit like hole-borers strung with harp strings.  Sadly, the instruments are placed in cacophonous lobby spaces, which prevents people from looking at them for long or hearing the music uploaded to them.

I looked at the sheet music on the walls of the waiting area, which were enlarged copies of instrument parts from musicians covered in notes and scribbles, reminders to listen for a cue or for changes to the music at the last moment. It was a reminder to me that despite all the magic that Björk’s music holds, all of its seemingly-organic nature, it takes practical technicians of all sorts to put it together and communicate it into recorded form.

The main portion of the show was billed as an interactive tour of Björk’s seven albums, led by a poetic audio-guide experience. An older couple behind me said in a thick Long Island accent that they were just going to skip the audio tour and breeze through. Maybe I should have listened to them. The audio tour is an iPhone with headphones, and its tracks change as you move through the rooms. Mine was malfunctioning. It didn’t recognize that I was moving into a different room until about three rooms ahead, whence it got very confused. Nevertheless I listened to the poet Sjón’s text about Björk, in elaborate, flowery prose. It did little to serve the show, and it was too long for someone to patiently wait in each room for it to be over; there simply weren’t enough objects in the galleries to pause long enough. What was interesting about the audio, however, were alternate mixes of Björk’s music interspersed throughout the text. Stereo sound effects would loop in, like wind noises and ice melting. A soundtrack of remixes or simple soundscapes would have been a delightful alternative to this text tour, giving the show an otherworldly quality.

The tour of Björk’s memorabilia was also hit and miss. Some objects were fun and fantastic: the red boots worn in the ‘Hyperballad’ video, the Iris Van Herpen plastic dress from the ‘Biophilia’ tour, and the robots from Chris Cunningham’s exquisite ‘All is Full of Love’ video. The costumes from the ‘Wanderlust’ video and 'Volta' album showed Björk’s innate genius to collaborate with designers, and the details were really given a chance to shine.

Other items seemed oddly pristine. The bell dress from the ‘Who Is It’ video was sparkling in its glory, but I’ve seen it in the basement of a record shop in Reykjavík looking like someone went to a rave in it. Which is sort of how I wanted to see it again. Björk's "costumes" are more like "clothing"; they’re made to be worn, worn in and worn out, danced around in, part of what makes her human.
Bell dress at MoMA

Bell Dress at the old Smekkleysa Records, Iceland

Bell Dress at the old Smekkleysa (2007)


The most captivating elements of the show by far are Björk’s notebooks. Among them are lyrics, photos, cutout magazine clippings, and scrapbook-like details of her career. A small notebook at the entrance of the exhibit has Björk’s childhood diary, writing about her parents and grandparents. Another notebook has lyrics to ‘Harbor Song’ from ‘Debut’ in both English and Icelandic, opposite a sketch for organ music, the staff lines drawn by hand onto lined paper. Still another notebook has the words to ‘Mouth’s Cradle’ from ‘Medulla’--who knew it was originally titled ‘Ghost’s Cradle’, where all the instances of ‘ghost’ were later changed? One can see her editing process at work. What gets saved? What gets scrapped? What never made it to the recording studio?

Sadly, for most non-Icelanders, about half of the journals will be hard to read. There are no wall texts or descriptive cards to help translate the Icelandic. One vitrine has photos of the inside of the singer’s throat, presumably related to her recent surgery. The average viewer not knowing that, Björk might just be the crazy singer who collects pictures of endoscopies.
There are too few objects in this Planet Hollwood-like tour. Most 'rooms' only had about three or four objects in them. There is also a corner of the ground floor which plays visualizations of the ‘Biophilia’ music, though the songs’ audio are drowned out by passers-by. Björk’s show at MoMA presents similar challenges to any museum faces showcasing works with sound (especially sound art). How can you possibly contain sound from turning into cacophony, but still offer it to scores of viewers? What are alternatives to blocking off every single sound-making element with its own room? These questions have yet to be solved completely.

There is little doubt on the legitimacy of the Icelander’s compositional voice--the sparseness of objects in the show actually reinforces the fact that Björk’s music still outweighs her visual presence in pop culture. Her work will be remembered for more than the swan dress and the hairstyles; all of the Michel Gondry videos, the CGI graphics, the costumes and the props, would be nothing without the songs that inspired them. As much as the cramped quarters of MoMA might try to do, you cannot contain Björk’s voice.