Björk: A MoMA Retrospective

An emotional sonic journey through the singular Icelandic artist's solo career

Between releasing her new “complete heartbreak” album Vulnicura (which describes the end of a 13-year relationship with artist Matthew Barney) and performing at New York venues from Carnegie Hall to Governors Ball this spring, the singular Icelandic artist Björk is offering something else for fans: a large-scale retrospective opening this Sunday at the Museum of Modern Arts. Simply titled “Björk,” this exhibition—which encompasses her work from the past 22 years—is one that friend and curator Klaus Biesenbach has been desiring since 2000.


“She said, ‘I’m a musician, first and foremost. I’m a singer, I’m a composer. Can you—and can MoMA—make an exhibition where music is an authentic experience, like a painting is an authentic experience?'” recalls Biesenbach at the exhibition’s preview. “A painting on the wall, it’s a one-on-one [experience]. It’s not about a painting; it’s not a documentary about it, it’s not a catalog, it’s not a postcard—[a painting] is a real experience. And that was the challenge that she posed to us. And the interesting thing with her, is that she has this incredibly enthusiastic, convincing, nearly contagious energy that she puts into a vision. And she and all her team and whoever works with her in her life, they achieve what she doesn’t know yet—where they will arrive. And so I got caught in this collaborative energy doing the exhibition.”


The most Instagrams will come from the “Songlines” portion of the exhibition, located on the third floor. Guests don headphones connected to an iPod and begin their “sonic journey” through an intimate labyrinth featuring Björk’s past costumes, props, notebooks scrawled in both Icelandic and English and more. With headphones on, there’s no pressure to say something poignant to the other people in your party. It’s just you crawling through Björk’s psyche on your own.


The audio tour weaves a fictional narrative over Björk’s actual music timeline, and cues are triggered based on your location within the galleries. Each section corresponds with a significant solo album, from 1993’s Debut to 2011’s Biophilia. While the mannequins (Björk look-alikes) used to display pieces like the controversial Swan Dress and Bernard Willhelm’s Volta body sculpture can give off a feeling of Madame-Tussauds-meets-The-Costume-Institute, the ensembles indicate her character’s spiritual rebirth with each consecutive album.


While “Songlines” is the most time-consuming (up to 40 minutes for those who linger), the culmination of emotions will be taking place in the immersive sound and video installation for “Black Lake”—a piece commissioned by MoMA and also a track on Vulnicura. Biesenbach agrees, describing it as the “pulsating heart” of the exhibition. Guests enter a dark chamber with two parallel screens, with the walls covered in 6,000 felt soundproofing cones. As Björk beats her chest over and over in the music video for this excruciatingly personal break-up song, it’s impossible not to empathize with her pain.

“We spent last summer—the coldest summer ever—in a cave in Iceland,” says Biesenbach of the making. “And for nearly three days (we had only three days because that’s what we could afford for making this small movie), she was barefoot in a [Iris van Herpen] dress that was made of copper wire; and we were all bundled up. Because it was really cold in this volcanic cave. She sang every take without ever lip-syncing—up to complete exhaustion, but it was our exhaustion; she wasn’t even exhausted.” He continues, “So Black Lake rebuilds the experience of [that] cave. It’s her heart; it’s a cave.”


Adjacent to the “Black Lake” room is “Cinema”—a room screening Björk’s archive of music videos, from “Human Behavior” (1993) to “Mutual Core” (2012). It’s complete with informal seating, a similar vibe to Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” set-up at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium but with more comfy velvet, cube-shaped couches. Watching the avant-garde music videos directed by The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi, fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze and more, the viewer is reminded of the resounding theme of this exhibition: Björk transcending beyond just a composer, singer and performer. She is connective force that not only unites different creative disciplines, drawing in filmmakers, fashion designers, architects, scientists and more, but also seemingly polar forces in music, culture and elsewhere to inspire and influence.


Biesenbach, who oversaw the music-driven MoMA exhibitions for Antony and the Johnsons, Kraftwerk and now Bjork, remarks, “I think that art that is really inspiring, changing how we look at the world, disruptive, doesn’t necessarily fit into a frame or fit onto a pedestal. In a world where everybody is on a little screen and you are all on your little screens… what is an authentic experience that doesn’t fit into a frame or onto a pedestal? I think that is what we embark on in this exhibition.” “Björk” carries through with its ambitious intentions of stirring something deep inside.


Björk” opens 8 March 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art and runs through 7 June 2015. The “Songlines” portion requires a timed ticket that can be reserved (at no additional charge) same-day, on-site. There is also an accompanying exhibition catalogue available at the MoMA Store for $65.

Still from “Black Lake” courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian; all other images by Nara Shin