Autumn Whitehurst

Emerging country-mouse-ishly into the turbid arcades of Penn Station, on a trip to the city to see the Björk exhibition at MoMA, I stare for a beat too long at the damp-looking man jolting past me with rage-lumps in his face. We lock eyes and—zap, twang—he feints at me with his head, stamps on the floor, and sends a brilliant bolt of hatred up my spine. Okay, I think to myself a couple of breaths later, as my follicles settle and some kind of coronal discharge flutters off the top of my head. Okay, now I’m in the mood.

Björk at MoMA, Björk at MoMA … Well, she is art. There’s nobody like Björk: design freak, beat-hunter, womb of experimentation—a pop star with the soul of a poet. From child-prodigious beginnings in her native Iceland, she graduated through druidic punkery (K.U.K.L.) and twinkling indie pop (the Sugarcubes) into a solo career that, over two-plus decades, has looped exotically in and out of the mainstream, towing in its wake orchestras, technologies, fashion concepts, futuristic collaborators, and spectacular videos. She once wrote a lyric for Madonna that went Today is the last day / that I’m using words / they’ve gone out / lost their meaning. And then there’s her voice, which is wide-mouthed, world-mouthed, from its loudest Horn of Gondor vowel-blast to its most confiding little earthy grumble and nymphic muttering. Plasmatic, lullabistic, bubblicious, vocabulary-disruptingI can’t imagine pop music without it.

But to funnel Björk, in all her 49-year-old fecundity, into the fatal stasis and stupefaction of a mega-museum show? The art-curious in stunned herds, filing between stanchions, lectured by texts on walls? A disaster in the making, surely. And indeed the critics have been surpassingly mean: “tacky”; “a fiasco”; “bad, really bad.” At a proper Björk exhibition (or, at least, one curated by me), you’d buy your ticket and be immediately shot in the face with an aerated gel smelling of licorice and walrus tusks. There’d be a dance floor, a sweat lodge, nude German composers, and wandering livestock.

At MoMA, up on the third floor, we have the horribly inert “Songlines”—a headphone-guided tour around various props and Björk-bits, many of them behind glass. The shoes she wore in the “Hyperballad” video, the copulating robots from “All Is Full of Love,” the runic scratchings of her notebooks. If I say that the curatorial imagination on display here is roughly on par with that found at the Who Museum, which is a small collection of Dr. Who memorabilia (a Cyberman costume, etc.) located at the back of the Who Shop in East London, I’m doing an injustice to the Who Museum. The crap coming out of the headphones, meanwhile, has to be heard to be believed: the soul-progress of Björk rendered as sub-Jungian fairy tale, written by the Icelandic poet-novelist (and Björk collaborator) Sjón and read with humid conviction by an Icelandic actress.

Once there was a girl …
a girl … who lived alone …
in a lava field … in a forest …
by the ocean …

And once …
once there was a heart …
a human heart
that lived inside a girl …

Museumgoers plugged into this, reeling through the dry vestibules of “Songlines,” staring at the Björk mannequins in their Björk dresses—it’s an image of cultural somnambulism so pure that it’s practically sci-fi.

“Instruments” is okay—a display of instruments used on Björk’s cosmically ambitious 2011 album, Biophilia, such as the gameleste (metal bars in a celesta housing) and the gravity harp (huge singing pendulums). And “Cinema” is okay, too—a room with terraces of red cushion, essentially what used to be called a chill-out room, where one perches or sprawls hipsterishly while music videos are shown in rotation like it’s Björk Day on VH1. But the physical heart of this whole thing—and the most competently executed idea—is the “Black Lake” installation on the second floor, a dark and bristling chamber with large screens at either end and 49 speakers arranged along the walls, which are themselves surfaced with hundreds of irregular cones of stiff black fabric, like puckered nipples or tiny volcanoes. Showing here is the 11-minute video for “Black Lake,” a song from Björk’s new album, Vulnicura. As you line up outside, text on the wall prepares you, in its thudding, wall-texty way, for “long, sustained chords played by strings that resonate in the body of the listener, echoing the emotive and confessional nature of the lyrics.”

Ah yes, the emotive and confessional. We are obliged here to address the bulge in the ether, the phantom installation going on behind the actual installation of “Black Lake,” which is the media noise about Björk’s separation, after more than a dozen years, from her partner, the artist Matthew Barney. This is the core matter of Vulnicura, Björk’s most scraped and misery-ridden work to date. “Black Lake,” the song, exists on the lonely sonic plane of the bohemian chanteuse Nico’s 1968 requiem “Frozen Warnings.” It is revelatory, accusatory, a species of avant-garde diss track. You fear my limitless emotions / I’m bored of your apocalyptic obsessions, sings Björk, over deep-stratum beats like pain-pulses and great cello-tormented abysses (all delivered pristinely by the 49 speakers). The video is very literal-minded, possibly the least imaginative Björk video ever, suggestive of a muse stripped down or stunted by sorrow. We see Björk kneeling in an earthen tunnel, shivering with heart-shock. She thumps her breast, she staggers down subterranean channels, blue lava flows, she emerges onto an Icelandic plain, she wanders across the tundra. Then she grows layers of faery plumage and hangs in the air, supine, ecstatic. Screw you, Matthew Barney.

Why Björk? Why MoMA? Whither art, pop, museums, consumption? The show itself has no answers, but you might find some within the $65 publishing hardware that is the exhibition catalog. Inside a glossy black slipcase are five booklets. Five styles, five ways of looking at a Björkbird: curatorial bluster from MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, who hails Björk as “one of the defining artistic practitioners of our times”; a Vulcan-professorial lecture from the academic Nicola Dibben (“Björk’s artistic output is characterized by themes and narratives of creation and unification that problematize familiar gendered dualist categories”); the feathery gibberish of Sjón’s headphone prose; an essay by Alex Ross that diligently maps Björk’s more esoteric musical influences; and—most interesting—a giddy, accelerative e‑mail exchange between Björk and the British philosopher Timothy Morton, titled “This Huge Sunlit Abyss From the Future Right There Next to You …” Morton is a promoter-prophet of something called object-oriented ontology—which aspires, as far as I understand it, to demolish the thought boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, this and not-this, until you, me, and the lost sock behind the dryer are buzzing in magical equivalence across overlapping fields of energy. And he loves Björk. “Your art is like trying to hook up all these telepathic wires between everything,” he tells her.

Now we’re getting there: the mystical-biological dimension. Pop music is a planetary nervous system in which MoMA, while this show lasts, has become a large and rather complicated node. The Björk-messages are running through it, hopping and throbbing. What are they saying? I want to go on a mountain-top / with a radio and good batteries / play a joyous tune / and free the human race from suffering. So Björk announced in 1997’s “Alarm Call.” With Vulnicura, she’s letting us know that her heart is broken, and I imagine the “Black Lake” installation as a dark and velvety blowhole for the world’s pain. Tottering out of this exhibition, for all its inadequacies, you feel it: the slippery grids; the rippling meshes of Björkness; “the rushing quality,” to quote Morton again“and the tendrils climbing up quality and the hairs on one’s body waving like coral quality.” Amen, amen. It’s pop, it’s life, it’s the angry man frazzling my chakras in Penn Station. Let a thousand tiny volcanoes roar.

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