Why Björk Deserves So Much More Than Her MoMA Exhibit

Photo: Courtesy of Glen Luchford.
I didn’t so much stumble across Björk as I did collide with her — like the way a fall in a dream can jolt you from your sleep and leave you gasping for breath in the middle of the night. I was in college and a friend of mine had a poster of Björk taped to her wall. It was a black-and-white photograph from her days with the Sugercubes, and she was wearing a tight white T-shirt that so perfectly embodies the '90s that I’m not even sure where you’d be able to find one like it today. You could see half of her tattoo peeking out from underneath her left sleeve. Her hair fanned out around her head — she was lying supine on a bed covered with polka-dotted sheets and pillows — and she wears a serene look on her face. I remember my friend and I smoked pot that afternoon, and we listened to Björk from a pair of crappy speakers instead of going to an art history lecture. It was one of my first small acts of glamorous rebellion. 

Björk was, when you listened to her lyrics, otherworldly — not exactly human; in her song “Human Behavior,” she sings: “If you ever get close to a human and human behavior, be ready, be ready, to get confused.” At 18, I felt out of place in the world: I was tall and gangly, innocent but not naïve, with a current of anger still running through me. I found it impossible to speak with boys, with my professors, with the other people on my dormitory floor. I was in New York City, eager to escape my suburban Californian upbringing, but unsure as to how, exactly, I was supposed to do that. Björk was a haven of expression. She sings in “Pluto,” “Excuse me / But I just have to / Explode / Explode this body / Off me.” I was hooked.

Her music was there for me during that gap stage in my life, that point where you have to jump from teenager to twentysomething, anointed with a sense of maturity you haven’t quite earned, but know you’ll find in the next decade. A time when your heart hasn’t been broken and your dreams haven’t been realized. Björk's music presented an edge of possibility that I hadn’t ever understood before.
Photo: Inez and Vinoodh/Wellhart/One Little Indian.
That she was from Iceland, a country I had barely heard of — an island formed from the oceanic crust, documented in Nordic sagas when Vikings roamed the seas — only reinforced the idea that the singer was out of time and place with the rest of us. That she worked with all of the electronic scene producers and DJs of the late '80s and early '90s — Tricky, Talvin Singh, Nellee Hooper — was also mind-boggling. These were people I discovered on Napster while sitting at home on a dial-up modem, chatting on AOL — and they, too, had seemed almost extraterrestrial with their use of ambient sounds and electronic beats, like people on another planet communicating to us through a special sort of musical Morse code. 

A lot has already been written about the disappointingly bad mid-career retrospective of Björk at the Museum of Modern Art. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one who tired of Klaus Biesenbach’s fame-friendly Instagram feed and self-serious selfies. It is puzzling that such a fascinating musician could be so un-fascinating boxed up in a museum, especially when other exhibitions have done far more elegant jobs at handling material that is just as theatrical or varied in multimedia. The show will be popular this spring, but that doesn’t make it good. And, the truth of the criticism here is that MoMA knows it can do better as a leading institution of contemporary art. Björk is as much an artist as a pop star, but it’s a careful line for a museum to walk, especially when so many others crave this same kind of legitimacy.

The best part of the exhibit is undoubtedly the enormous room with the ginormous red rectangular pillows, where you can watch one Björk music video after another, the way watching YouTube on the Internet can sprawl across hours of your day. Björk has collaborated with practically everyone — from Tuvan throat singers and Inez & Vinoodh to Nico Muhly and Alexander McQueen — with such grace and perfect strangeness that looking at something she made 10 years ago only reinforces how more recent contemporary efforts by people like Kanye and Lady Gaga look stunted and amateur.
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Photo: Jean Baptiste Mondino/Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian.
The show was also timed to the release of her ninth album, Vulnicura, which came out earlier this year. It was a “breakup album,” according Björk, a not-so-subtle reference to her separation from artist Matthew Barney, whose five-and-a-half hour film, River of Fundament, debuted last year. In her song “Black Lake,” for which the music video was commissioned by MoMA for the exhibit, she sings: “You fear my limitless emotions / I’m bored of your apocalyptic obsessions / Did I love you too much / Devotion bent me broken.” It’s probably not very rigorous of me to speculate that Barney’s film, too, contains self-flagellating breakup themes (I didn’t see it), but I will anyway in part because a breakup like theirs was particularly devastating. Björk and Matthew Barney were like Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon — their love carried an expectation of cool for a generation of fans that no real marriage could possibly survive. That the personal could be so deeply poetic allowed us to fantasize about being married to an artist — or a writer, or anyone creative, really — who could express their emotions on an aesthetic plane. I remember watching Björk’s appearance in Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 (2005) with a soft sense of awe — if only because it was impossible to imagine her chopping vegetables for dinner on a Tuesday night or him putting their baby to bed. Their lives defied the mundane, and when you’re younger, you hope that yours does, too.      

Björk is older now. So am I. My heart has been broken. Some of my dreams have slipped away; others have come true. There are paparazzi photographs of her walking through New York City with her daughter, and she looks just like one of us: tired of being hassled by the frenetic energy of the street, hair sloppily pulled away from her head, arms weighed down by a shopping bag, carrying extra layers she’s peeled off from the warmth of the walk. Her music is just as good, but some of her mystery has disappeared for me. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — all of us are keen to learn more.

Take, for example, how she has struggled in the past with clearly defining her authorship as a composer and artist. In her interview with Pitchfork in January, she became emotional discussing her work: “After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learned — the hard way — that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they — men — had the ideas. I became really good at this and I don’t even notice it myself.” It was revealing and genuine. It’s a shame, because the MoMA show could have further lifted the veil Björk wears in an interesting way. Instead, unfortunately, the exhibit repackages the most superficial of what we already know about her. We — as does Bjork — deserve better.
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