In theory, the collaboration between Björk and New York’s Museum Of Modern Art makes a lot of sense. MoMA, one of the most distinctive art museums in a city full of them, is concerned with creativity, expression, and uniqueness in art. And while the word “singular” is thrown around in press releases and reviews so often that it’s essentially been robbed of meaning, Björk’s career is clearly deserving of the label. Put another way—music is an art, but not all musicians are necessarily artists who should be working at a museum with such a storied (and predominantly visual) history. The pairing is inspired, but the resulting exhibit isn’t.
The “mid-career retrospective” framing for this self-titled exhibit is somewhat unflattering and limited by definition. It’s an easy way of getting people in the door, because hey, it’s Björk. But it also suggests a lack of originality, a presentation that is unlikely to be particularly enriching beyond reminding people that this work and its creator exist. The best-case scenario for “Björk” would be positioning the artist in a new light, a well-curated perspective to educate newcomers and give fans a fresh look at art that’s been around for over a decade. The retrospective, especially at a museum with MoMA’s reputation, has obligations to both of those audiences.
But the exhibit appears to be more interested in what it would mean to do a “mid-career retrospective” in the first place. The centerpiece is “Songlines,” an audio-guided tour through Björk’s solo career divided into several “rooms,” each representing an album. An app provides a guided song tour, playing each piece of music as the listener approaches a relevant item. (This type of collaboration is nothing new for Björk—her Biophilia was the first app MoMA placed in its collection.) The walls are sparsely appointed with books filled with handwritten lyrics, the “All Is Full Of Love” robots, and the famous swan dress.
As an idea, “Songlines” has some potential—in particular, the responsiveness of the audio, which allows the artist to control the space of the exhibition in novel ways, as well as (theoretically) the amount of time the viewer spends there. In fact, there are a lot of things “Songlines” could conceivably be about. Even the seemingly unnecessary amount of time one is supposed to spend in each room (the app suggests five minutes, which doesn’t sound like a long time until you’ve tried to spend it at an art-viewing pace in a room with only three or four objects) could be rationalized as encouraging the sort of pensive contemplation of memory that the audio is meant to convey.
But where lots of art comes from the overcoming of limitations, “Björk” feels limited, like the team behind the production has invested just enough in the exhibit to suggest a certain level of thoughtfulness. The storybook narration, written by frequent collaborator Sjón, is trite and not particularly interesting, abstracting a long and complex career into a series of simple pronouncements about a “girl.” For an artist so concerned with blurring boundaries, Björk appears content here to nod toward future work that could make better, more considered use of the technology.
Thankfully, even Björk still has a comfort zone. The exhibit continues downstairs, with two additional screening spaces. The first is for “Black Lake,” a combined video and musical project commissioned for the exhibit that became a part of Vulnicura, the recently released album chronicling Björk’s breakup with artist Matthew Barney. Unsurprisingly, “Black Lake,” directed by Andrew Huang (who worked on the similarly volcanic, much livelier “Mutual Core” for Los Angeles’ Museum Of Contemporary Art), is, in many ways, a literal eruption. But the fact that it’s on the nose doesn’t negate any of its power—the video and music are classic Björk. Just because the emotion is naked doesn’t mean it isn’t also moving, something that’s helped quite a bit by the sound design and cavernous feel of the screening room.
Some of my problems with “Björk” might have come from the audience experience. In my case, hustling through a scheduled viewing with a bunch of tired-seeming media people trying to take notes wasn’t conducive to much productive intellectual dwelling. (Hopefully MoMA will allow fewer people through at a time once it’s open to the public.) And “Black Lake” plays well already, but will likely be even more powerful when there’s a bit more awe and less guarded exhaustion in the room.
The last screening space is the most purely enjoyable part of the exhibit—a room filled with big ottoman-like objects showcasing Björk music videos in a way that allows for collective recognition and renewed appreciation of the artist. In particular, the audience (at least during the time I was in this space) was delighted by the Spike Jonze-directed, cat-filled video for “Triumph Of A Heart.”
That video emits a certain vitality, a sense of play that Björk (or at least her team of collaborators) appear to have lost track of during the run-up to the exhibit. This was the most I’ve ever felt like I was living inside a satirical novel about the “art world,” in ways that extended to most of the materials surrounding the exhibit. The post-game press conference with the museum’s chief curator at large, Klaus Biesenbach, did some work to contextualize the exhibit, but not enough. Some of the information was more interesting to the music journalist crowd (“Black Lake” was not originally intended for Vulnicura), some to the art critic. Much was made of the corporate largesse of Volkswagen, which had the initial kernel of the idea for the “Songlines” app in something designed to help drivers.
The general impulse behind the ”retrospective” label here—that Björk began work in the not-so distant past of 2012 on a career retrospective capturing where she would be in a few years—could give the exhibit a sense of the uncanny, something that would have gone a long way toward heightening its potency. Instead, it’s a somewhat compelling but ultimately half-sketched picture of an artist. Put another way: There’s a lot being sung in “Björk,” but it’s unclear exactly what is being said.