The MoMA Björk retrospective
Last year, we had a young friend from Germany visiting us with her boyfriend. At some point we came to mention Björk, but both of them drew a complete blank. ”The musician?” Elke tried to explain, “The swan dress at the Oscars?” But nothing. Later, Elke and I joked, wouldn’t we have known the girl since the third day of her life, we just might have send them home again.
Seriously, not knowing Björk? You may or may not like her music, but you can’t ignore her. And so, the MoMA rightfully launched a retrospective to explore her work. We were there for the member reception, which is generally a wonderful, swanky event by itself. New York was just coming out of a major snow storm, but that didn’t keep people away: the lobby was packed around its three bars.
The exhibition itself is split into four parts. The center piece is Songlines, which is housed in a temporary structure in the Atrium. You need timed tickets to enter. Then there’s the Black Lake exhibit, which you just have to stand in line for – unfortunately we didn’t manage to get in there yet. There’s also a cinema showing her video work and some of the Biophilia instruments are scattered in the lobby, including a Tesla coil mounted on the ceiling, that plays rhythmical one-note melodies from time to time.
But back to Songlines: Björk and curator Klaus Biesenbach wanted to create an exhibition that is Björk’s art rather than about it and I think they succeeded. Maybe that’s why so many are confused: it is about experiencing her music in a new context. For that, everybody is handed an iPod and high-quality headphones. So equipped, you move through seven rooms, each of them dedicated to an album (the latest, Vulnicura is not included). You will hear Björk’s music and some narration, but don’t try to follow too closely what the woman says: it is obviously not meant as an informative guide to the show, but rather part of the overall atmosphere. The iPod changes the program automatically based on your location as you progress through the rooms (TIP: tap on the screen, multiple times, to switch to an album manually if the iPod goes out of sync).
The show contains some of the artifacts Björk used in videos and for cover art of her albums as well as various notebooks with handwritten lyrics. Björk fans will appreciate close-up views of the visuals she has created to support her music: the swan dress is there, the robots from All Is Full Of Love* and the Biophila wig. Together with the soundtrack it is an immersive experience and I was actually surprised to have spent the advertised 40 minutes in the the show – time seemed to pass in a flash.
Maybe I’m easily dazzled and maybe my positive bias towards Björk helps too, but I enjoyed the show a lot. Don’t expect to learn new things about Björk and don’t expect much of an intellectual challenge: what you get is to experience Björk’s music in a new and unique way.
Björk runs from today until June 7th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.