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Bjork in Retrospective at MoMA

All these accidents
That happen
Follow the dot
– Jóga
When it was announced last year that Bjork would be getting the MoMA-retrospective treatment, I joined the rest of her fans in rejoicing at the chance to look back over the work of one of the most talked-about, exciting artists of our time. How much of the Icelandic warrior-princess’ influences over the 8 albums she’s recorded would she reveal? How much of her roughly-drafted early song lyrics would we be privy to? How would her daring music videos with the likes of Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham be presented? And, most importantly, would the swan dress from the 2001 Oscars make an appearance?
Turns out, the idea for a retrospective has been in the works for some time. The Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator Klaus Biesenbach has been urging Bjork to agree to it for over a decade.
“How do you hang songs?” Bjork herself asked, expressing her initial reservations. But, a dozen years later, she warmed to the idea, and so did the other relevant players needed to pull off the unusual exhibition.
I went to a preview, hoping to hear Bjork herself talk a bit more about it. She was there, but only for a very quick blink-and-you-miss-it moment, especially since she was dressed in a black cactus-like outfit that covered her face, relaying her gratitude to those who helped make the whole thing come together. Pictures were not permitted, which is a pity because how often does one get to see Bjork in one of her fantastical get-ups in person? (A very rare occurrence if you, like me, are from the tip of Africa.)
Even before you’re actually ready for the whimsical, eccentric bits and pieces that make up her 2-decade career, you’re hit with the first part of the exhibition as you walk into the museum. Sounds from instruments used in Biophilia, the first app ever to be acquired by MoMA, fill the lobby on the first floor, while the app itself is projected on a wall on the third floor.
I didn’t spend too much time there though, because I had a time slot to get into Songlines, the fictional journey through Bjork’s 8 albums. It’s designed to be an interactive, immersive experience that builds on the tangible things that led to or came out of Bjork’s albums – from 1993’s Debut to Vulnicura, released this month after being leaked in January.
The way it works is you are given an iPod that automatically syncs to where you are standing in the exhibit and plays a narrated story according to the part you are in. There are added instructions whispered in your ear by oft-collaborator Antony Hegarty, like “breathe” and “concentrate”, which are a little distracting, but that’s not what made the experience confusing for me.
It’s that there is not much space to wander. Your mind needs to do the wandering as you listen or focus on the item in front of you, but there is not a lot of space to physically walk around, at least not for the duration of the narration for each album. Once I’d got the hang of it – that it’s a meditation on the story of a girl with a beating blood-warm heart as her companion going out into the world – it was too late, and I couldn’t got back and re-visit the parts that had skipped ahead without my control. Pro-tip, then, from me to you, if you do go to that, take your time, and let your mind do the walking.
You will get to see some pretty amazing Bjork paraphernalia though – like the robots from Chris Cunningham’s All is Full of Love music video, a real-life GIF of Bjork’s image, made from a Nick Knight image captured during Homogenic, hand-written lyrics for Venus as a Boy, the late Alexander McQueen’s Bell Dress and, yes, the swan dress, made by Marjan Pejowski for the 2001 Oscars in honour of Dancer in the Dark Best Song nomination.
Something I really liked was created especially for the exhibition, the video installation Black Lake. The song appears on Bjork’s latest album, but Biesenbach says it was commissioned before they even knew there was going to be a new record coming from the singer. The 10-minute video, directed by Andrew Thomas Haung, was filmed in Iceland last year, during what Biesenbach calls the coldest Summer ever. After watching so many music videos on my laptop or iPhone, I found it quite emotional to get swept up in the expanse of the scenery and the sound and the motifs of devastation and re-birth.
I didn’t have time to hang out longer, but next to this part of the exhibition is a room with a giant screen, showing some of the more experimental videos Bjork has made during her career so far. Here’s hoping there will be many more – apps, iPhones, YouTubes and all.
Bjork runs at the Museum of Modern Art from March 8 until June 7 2015. 


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