Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Björk at MoMA: A Conversation with Todd Simmons

Björk at the Museum of Modern Art

March 8 through June 7, 2015
11 West 53 St (between 5th and 6th avenues)
New York, 212 708 9400|

Björk, still from “Black Lake,” commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015. Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian.
Björk, still from “Black Lake,” commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015. Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian.

Stephanie Buhmann: So here we are, two longtime Björk fans, who went to MoMA with our 16-month-old daughter in tow, hoping for an incredible event. What were your first impressions after leaving the museum?

Todd Simmons: I was a little confused about what exactly the curator, Klaus Biesenbach, was hoping to accomplish with this presentation of Björk’s extraordinary audio and visual work. What kind of an expectation did you have about what a visual retrospective of her work would be?

SB: I was skeptical from the get-go, doubting that a retrospective of a musician, no matter how innovative and groundbreaking, could be pulled off by a visually focused museum. Björk certainly is an exceptionally gifted artist in her medium — which is primarily music but also extends toward digital innovation. She is, of course, famous for her costumes and makeup, but there isn’t much there in terms of sculptural objects, drawings or anything else traditionally considered fine art, even in a loose sense. I was curious to see how MoMA was going to pull that off. I was also curious whether Björk had a traditional visual oeuvre (drawings, photographs, collages, etc.) in private, something many musicians do. That doesn’t appear to be the case. I walked away thinking that this show was an artificially constructed installation of minor visual objects, failing to truly celebrate — or enlighten us about — the non-material work that makes Björk the incredible artist she is.

Some of the most interesting objects on view were largely ignored: the pipe organs, for example, were installed in the downstairs lobby. They are fantastic instruments and unusual objects so why are they not part of the main exhibit?

TS: And they were only heard intermittently and it’s very easy to miss both the objects and their sound if you enter the museum at the wrong moment. I was there for three hours that day and only heard the instruments played briefly. The Tesla coil mounted on the foyer ceiling roared so abruptly that I saw a group of people jump out of their skins. That’s actually the kind of visceral experience I’d hoped for; only it never happened again that I noticed. I wanted to walk in off the street and be immediately captivated by the dynamic sound of Björk. But I had to fight my way into a cramped wooden structure to do so. She should have been given much more space for her thrilling music to soar in. Not merely a claustrophobic fort. For the show’s subject to have her sound get lost in the overall museum chatter is a significant problem.

SB: That name of the show sounded to me like a reference to Australian Aboriginal culture. In the Aboriginal belief system, a “songline” defines a path across the land. By singing songs in the appropriate sequence, Aborigines could navigate vast distances through the desert. It’s a way to navigate and to remember and pass on history, a concept that must resonate with Björk. The fact is that we learned too little. When it presents a pop-cultural icon, the museum promises two things: to enlighten us about the work of this artist and to convey a sense of the person, the mind behind it. This show is an empty promise; neither of these tasks were accomplished.

So what’s the original intent of this show? Is it trying to get us closer and more familiar with the artist or veil her further into mystery?

TS: There were partial attempts towards the personal, by including scattered diary entries, for example.

SB: Right, but although interesting on a personal level, the diaries and notebooks are not really visually engaging.

There are some interesting things to discover, like the wall of sheet music underneath several flat screens showing her performing on stage, but this is used as a mere backdrop in the waiting area. These musical notations, which reveal how elaborately layered and carefully arranged Björk’s music is, are in themselves beautiful abstract drawings — so why are they cast to the side at MoMA?

TS: It’s a mistake to have them displayed in a corridor when you’re queuing up to get into a room where the promise of a unique experience awaits. You can’t help but feel the push of the crowd and the promise that a “real” experience is going to be around the corner. It’s a fleeting flirtation, which is frustrating when you’d like to savor these details, but you’re being pressured to advance to the next station. You couldn’t feel good about lingering because you’d be holding up the line. It made me wonder: is it ill-advised to dub this bottleneck “Songlines,” in a city as crowded and impatient as New York is, and in a museum designed to process throngs of humanity every hour?

SB: I know what MoMA can get out of this exhibit. I don’t know what Björk is gaining from the experience, as it has not been pulled off well.

TS: A deeper level of credibility or acclaim that she already has? No. She’s arguably one of the most experimental pop stars of her generation. She’s not an artist that you would think is in it for the exposure. One can only speculate what her motivation was to do this. As Biesenbach has said, the museum asked her to do something as long ago as 2000 and she declined. Then in 2012, according to him, Björk decided that she was in a place where a mid-career retrospective was more appropriate. But there’s no explanation why such a show is more justified now than in 2000 or 2030.

SB: Beyond being a let down for fans like myself, I think MoMA missed the opportunity to show a significant artist with respect to her craft and Björk’s work wasn’t able to help MoMA succeed in branching out towards new media. Björk’s work might not be your taste, but I think she is one of the first and few artists who have successfully used computer technology to talk about how human we are. This exhibition doesn’t reveal this at all. I would have liked to see an entire floor in the museum be dedicated to dark rooms and only sound.

Björk, Biophilia, 2011. Credit: By M/M (Paris) Photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin. Image courtesy of Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian.
Björk, Biophilia, 2011. Credit: By M/M (Paris) Photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin. Image courtesy of Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian.

TS: It just didn’t have a specific character to it and there were strange spaces in between the objects and galleries, such as a corridor that didn’t lead anywhere. I constantly wondered if I missed sections of the exhibit and reexamined the program to investigate. But I hadn’t. It felt both claustrophobic in the rotunda and scattered in the other parts, including the display of instruments from Biophilia, which is also the first app in MoMA’s collection. You might have noticed the instruments if they happened to be playing when you walked by, but if not, you could have easily missed them.

The show is supposed to be a “cutting edge, audio experience.” MoMA staff greeted us at the beginning of the exhibit, effectively explaining the audio device we wore on our ears and hanging around our necks. The advanced technology tracks you and senses where you are in the exhibit and triggers the audio, obviating the need to look down to device and fumble with it, which is smart.

SB: The concept sounds incredible, but in reality I found that songs and storylines were switching up too fast and unpredictably. As soon as I was getting into a song and turned, the next track started and pulled me out of the moment. It didn’t flow organically.

TS: I was confused by the narrative, which I assumed as I walked through was a story of Björk’s life as a child emerging into womanhood, only to find out later that it was actually a made up narrative made up by an Icelandic writer, one of her friends. It was simply fiction posing as an autobiography and what confuses me about that is some of the early stages in the exhibit had personal photographs, journals and writing, which made it very easy to assume that the narrative was equally autobiographical. I felt deceived afterwards. Why do we have to make up a narrative and if we have to, why don’t we take it even further? Björk’s songs always push boundaries.

But I think of Björk also as a visual artist — nearly as much a pioneer in her visual presentation as she has been in music. She has an incredible daring in her experimentation with video and certainly in her fashion sense and costuming. there is always collaboration in her projects — with Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Alexander McQueen, etc. — however, she is a visual vessel.

SB: She’s a great sourcer and channeler. She taps into a certain kind of zeitgeist and then finds very interesting collaborators to create something unique. In a way her albums can be considered curated exhibitions, not just in terms how the music unfolds from song to song, but how she goes about developing the accompanying imagery.

Installation view of Björk, The Museum of Modern Art, March 8–June 7, 2015. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.
Installation view of Björk, The Museum of Modern Art, March 8–June 7, 2015. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

TS: You would never want to start one of her songs in the middle for example. You want to drop the needle at the beginning and play it all the way through. But “Songlines” only gives sporadic snippets of her music, partially drowned out by an invented narrative in voiceover, written by somebody else. And, as we were talking about earlier, there’s no complementary focus on objects. Those on display serve as mere props to her art. There’s the infamous, ridiculed swan dress she wore to the 2001 Oscars — but is that’s not what she’s really about. Things like that feel quaint. Why show her swan dress, when showing the process of creating Dancer in the Dark (2000) would be so much more enlightening?

SB: I wanted the installation to reflect what Björk is about, but also to capture some of the unique sense of spectacle she creates.

TS: It seems a jarring contrast that this inadequate presentation of her work would coincide with the release of her ninth solo record, Vulnicura (2015) which resonates with an almost painful depth of catharsis and courageous personal exploration. We understand that one of the album’s songs, “Black Lake,” is essentially an expression of the dissolution of her union with Matthew Barney and the fracturing of her family. That’s pretty much the most blatantly autobiographical Björk has ever gotten in her work. And one can only imagine the impact of the live experience of this album in concert. But the contrast between the album and “Black Lake” in particular and this cramped cluster of exhibit rooms was jarring. Two different leagues entirely.

SB: I think that “Black Lake” is incredibly moving and shows Björk at her best: A beautiful song about a heartrending story, framed by a stunningly desolate Nordic landscape, and yet with a glimpse of optimism at the end.

TS: No question in my mind that the video for “Black Lake” was the highpoint of the show, because it was an uninterrupted experience with dynamic, masterful sound design by Marco Perry, who uses 49 loudspeakers divided into groups around the room. It’s the one instance of this show utterly nailing something. Sitting through it on the floor, taking in the video amid a mind-blowing sound system, took my breath away. It was sensational. A totally immersive experience. Perry told me that the objective for him and Björk in that space was to create “a rarefied atmosphere, like walking onto the moon and hearing the sound of the stars.” Something tells me the entire exhibition would have been electric if the rest of it had honored that objective.

SB: I think that it was the only successful collaboration between Björk and MoMA. The museum commissioned it and stuck to her natural medium: music with a narrative video. I was moved by the rawness of emotion you find in the lyrics and her voice, as well as on film. In it, we see Björk age: she portrays a middle-aged woman now finds herself left vulnerable and alone, lamenting the death of her family, as she knew it. This is not a young girl or a vain attempt to cling to youth. It’s an incredibly gutsy project for that fact alone. Some people might say that some of the scenes seem melodramatic or lean towards kitsch, but those who’ve experienced a similar emotion at some time in their lives will know better. It’s a pretty sober portrayal by Björk’s standards and that was probably the most surprising discovery of the show for me.

TS: “Black Lake” succeeds on many levels. It offers a magnificent experience. We got a sustained piece of music. The sound in the room was truly immersive and powerful and detailed. They did a phenomenal job of bringing the potency of her music to vivid life without it being uncomfortably loud. Perry explained to me that it was as elaborate of a sound set-up as was possible for a room that size. The sound is literally all around you in a way that I have never experienced before.

SB: I experienced the sound very physically. It was almost as if it pulsated in my veins, as is if it infiltrated my body.

TS: Absolutely. It was such a potent sound design that even outside of the room you could still feel that whole section of the museum vibrate from the low frequency components. It rumbles the glass balcony and lends an inadvertent excitement to other sections of the exhibition without you knowing where it’s coming from.

SB: The use of two-channel projection worked well, too. You have to choose which one of the synchronized screens to watch, but the effect is that you always have a light source behind you. You are sandwiched between the content of “Black Lake,” which is inescapable.

TS: That’s a good point. It all feels very exposed. You watch an intimate scene you might rather not be witnessing, but you can’t pull yourself away from it either. It reminds me of Fassbinder or Cassavetes‘s anguished scenes of human emotional breakdown; but you also see her striving to avoid being crushed completely. For Björk to allow herself to be exposed like that is brave.

SB: And this sense of raw exposure is also reflected in the fact that her upcoming New York concerts are all being held during the day. It’s an unusually sober hour for rock n’ roll shows.

TS: Yes, one of the seven concerts is going to be at noon at Carnegie Hall, for example. You have breakfast, walk into the concert in broad daylight, and exit into daylight. That’s very unusual in rock. Her new album Vulnicura is heavily electronic and it was produced by two young London-based musicians: the Haxan Cloak and the Venezuela-born DJ Arca. It will be interesting to see if they will join Björk in concert or if these performances will reflect the stripped and raw quality we find in “Black Lake.”

Installation view of Björk, The Museum of Modern Art, March 8–June 7, 2015. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.
Installation view of Björk, The Museum of Modern Art, March 8–June 7, 2015. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

SB: I wanted to see more of this raw quality at MoMA. Maybe the problem was that the bureaucracy that comes with the realization of a major museum exhibition proved stifling to Björk, for whom MoMA is not the ultimate temple for her particular craft. Maybe the problem was that MoMA mainly aimed for a blockbuster, weighing the success of David Bowie’s retrospect at the Victoria & Albert, Alexander McQueen at the Met and Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at MoMA, along with Björk’s internationally famous name.

TS: I’m sure that this retrospective couldn’t have had Björk’s full attention. It felt like in some ways she had a hand in it, but in other ways she let them lead, and because of that it felt somewhat half-baked. The collapse of her family and the construction of a new album that documented that very painful chapter in her life must have taken up most of her attention and energy during a time when this show was coming together as well. Albums as detailed and elaborate and passionate as hers do not happen over night and it must have taken her attention away from focusing on her art museum debut and retrospective, which seems to belong more to Matthew Barney’s world than hers. It’s a strange dichotomy to present what feels like a fairly frivolous retrospective in conjunction with Björk’s most personal and gutsy album, Vulnicura. Presumably, her music will transcend MoMA’s squandered opportunity.