The Björk retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is an enterprise fifteen years in the making. MoMA’s curator-at-large, Klaus Biesenbach, first spawned the idea of a sweeping tribute to the Icelandic singer/visual artist in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the project was actually green-lit. It took an additional three years for several of MoMA’s shimmering white exhibition rooms to be transformed into a meandering Björk-maze, chock-full of her memorabilia and iconography.
It hasn’t taken long for art critics to universally pan the exhibit, deriding everything from its physical organization (New York called it “a discombobulated mess”) to its lack of thematic cohesion (the Guardian said “it’s one part Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exercise, one part science lab, one part synesthesia experiment”). The event, which drew swarms of people to its museum-member preview on Saturday and officially opened to the public March 8, promises to transfix the public for the rest of its residency, regardless of whether its contents are worthy of such curiosity. As this weekend’s crowds became thicker by the hour, one thing was clear: None of the negative criticism really matters all that much. The event itself isn’t about watching Björk’s music videos or fawning over her penchant for bizarre dress. It’s about her allure and mystery, and our need to understand her artistic motivations — and the fact that we probably never will.
In any case, the first of the three-part charade is composed of the ten-minute MoMA-commissioned short film Black Lake, which spectators watch in a cavelike room composed of 6,000 soundproofing cones. The experience then rolls haphazardly into another darkened movie theater, where zombie-eyed patrons can spend three hours watching Björk’s 36 music videos, if they so choose. The culmination of the event is “Songlines,” an entangled mess of various display cases that show Björk’s music video props, diary entries, and videography.
In theory, “Songlines” intends to be immersive and technologically dynamic. In reality, it just slides lazily through her discography and history as an artist. An intense sound-collage of various cuts from her albums serves as an audio guide, which is supposed to shuttle you through the labyrinthine setting. But the exhibit’s narration comes off more as an incongruous puddle of clashing audio files, and lends itself more to bewilderment than any clear sense of order.
Björk has continuously made avant-garde accessible and mainstream. Even at the very beginning of her catalog, with 1993’s Debut, elements of disparate genres meld in an eclectic soup of strangeness that’s at once jarring and cerebral, but still warm and inviting enough to shy away from intimidation. This kind of framework is what Björk’s used throughout seven LPs and more than two decades to propel her caterwauling howls into pop music. Her artistry lends itself to studied listening sessions and ruminations on record production and the lived experience undergirding her poetry, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to what we see in her MoMA retrospective. The disconnect between the live exhibit and recorded music was actually the main issue behind why the event took so long to organize. Biesenbach told Rolling Stone that Björk’s main gripe was “how do you put music into a frame and how do you put it on a pedestal,” which speaks directly to the main challenge the exhibit fails to address.
The Björk retrospective isn’t necessarily a disaster, and its attempt to marry audio with a visual storyline is admirable, but really nothing more than an idea hastily and chaotically conveyed. “Songlines” falls epically short of the “groundbreaking” stature that Volkswagen, the exhibit’s sponsor, so blindly ascribes to it. In fact, the exhibit reinforces the gulf between audience and display. It’s just a shame that Björk’s art isn’t demystified here, but further convoluted, and that even after this retrospective, we’re left with little more than what we knew about Björk before we walked into the MoMA.
Björk’s retrospective is on view at MoMA through June 7. For more information, visit moma.org.
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