When the Museum of Modern Art announced that they would be staging a retrospective of the work of Björk to coincide with the release of her new album, Vulnicura, I was elated. I adore the work of Iceland’s quirkiest and most daring export, and though I’ve personally obsessed over her work since I first saw the “Army of Me” video on Alternative Nation in 1995, I’ve only been able to contextualize it from a pop-music perspective. The idea of a museum-quality curatorial eye examining her music, videos, style, and interactive pieces from a fine-art perspective was enticing. What new connections would be made and new ideas uncovered?
Tragically, the answer to both of those questions is “None.” The show, simply titled Björk, opens this Sunday at MoMA, and is unequivocally the most half-assed effort associated with Björk since that last Sugarcubes album. There are three primary components: A room that screens all of her music videos, a space that projects the clip for Vulnicura’s “Black Lake” (which was specially commissioned for this event), and an interactive narrative piece called “Songlines” that walks you through each of Björk’s solo albums (a journey that curiously omits Vulnicura). There are also a few custom-built intstruments used for the recording of the 2011 album Biophilia that are scattered around MoMA’s lobby.
Björk has never made a dull video, so the video room is compelling even if you could have a similar experience scrolling through the same clips on YouTube. The newest project, “Black Lake,” is compelling and lovely, and presented across two screens in a room that looks like the inside of a volcano, with craters made of acoustic carpet dotting the walls. It’s an immersive experience, carried almost entirely by Björk’s staggering on-screen charisma.
But “Songlines” is the piece of the project that has been the most ballyhooed, and it’s also the biggest disappointment of the whole affair. Like other guests, I was given a playback device and a pair of headphones, and after a brief introduction explaining how each room would automatically trigger a new bit of audio, I wandered through a total of seven rooms, one for each album from Debut to Biophilia. In each way-too-small space, there were a handful of items either pertaining to the album (the most compelling being Björk’s personal journals, featuring crossed-out versions of lyrics from iconic songs like “Hyperballad” and “Joga”), bits of fashion (the famous swan dress, a pair of shoes worn in the “Isobel” video, the Alexander McQueen gown she sewed herself into for the “Pagan Poetry” video), and other bits of ephemera, like the sexy, Björk-faced robots from the “All Is Full Of Love” clip. All the while, songs from each album were mixed in with a wacky narrative about the various characters that Björk has assumed over the course of her career.
On paper, that sounded like a fantastically novel way to integrate all those objects with music, but the execution felt cheap and sloppy. The collection is thin and presented without any real context. It’s cool to see the swan dress up close, but what was the story behind it? What was Björk trying to accomplish? What was the nature of her collaboration with designer Marjan Pejoski? And considering how the entire point of this retrospective is to track the throughline between everything that Björk has done both musically and stylistically, how did the swan dress fit into the spirit of the music she was making at the time?
No attempt is made at answering any of those questions—or any questions, really. The audio portion didn’t add much of anything to the experience, since the fantastical narrative was difficult to follow and often went on far longer than it took to take in the two or three bits in each room. Anybody with even a passing interest in Björk—and certainly anybody committed enough to visit MoMA for it—will not acquire any new information about her life or her work.
That makes Björk a frustrating experience and a fantastically confounding missed opportunity. It isn’t without its merits—the “Pagan Poetry” dress is striking, and there’s a gigantic projection of the “Big Time Sensuality” video that gloriously overwhelms—but I kept wishing that Björk had chosen a different space (maybe one of the larger galleries in Chelsea?) and worked with a different creative team (I do not have a degree in anything related to museum curation, but I’d like to think I’d be able to come up one revelation given those same resources).
I blame MoMA, as my adoration for Homogenic is far too strong to find fault in anything that Björk does. But rather than refresh my obsession with her, Björk just kind of made me sad. I couldn’t wait to get out of “Songlines” so that I could crank up “Earth Intruders” on my iPhone, which probably isn’t the effect MoMa’s team was going for. But since its impossible to tell what their goals were, I’d like to think I got it.