“It’s oh-so-disappointing,” laments The Economist. “MOMA’s embarrassing Björk crush,” snarks The New Yorker. “A beautiful. ill-conceived disaster,” says TheAtlantic.com. With such universal disappointment surrounding MOMA’s Björk exhibition having built up since its March opening, I finally went along to see if I could find a way to disagree with the masses. I like to do that. It feeds the obstreperous in me. A cheap enough thrill but you should try it. Just say the opposite of everyone else and stick to those guns. Tell me how it feels.
I should preface the following by saying that I was the guest of a member and paid $5 instead of the regular $25. I should also add that I have almost all her albums and spent my early 20s in an obsessive fog over Björk. Her mohair sweater on the album cover of Debut accessorized with a lone crystal trembling on each eye’s lower lashes, before she was even a blip on fashion’s radar, is a style happening on a par with Tom Ford’s first collection for Gucci.
I strap on my headphones and enter the first room––more like a holding area, really, than a room. Björk’s voice and the soaring strings of Venus as a Boy erupt in both ears and fill me with joy. Although the voice of some other storytelling Icelandic dóttir pipes up, translating Björk’s life for the listener into a sort of fairy tale: “A girl was born in a hut in a field full of lava…” I want to ask this gatecrasher to leave. Björk’s fairy tale doesn’t need further fairy telling.
So I ignore her. It’s easy enough to do.
The entrance of each holding pen (MOMA you cannot get away with calling them rooms) bears the title of one of her seven albums. Inside there are notebooks and props from her videos. The accompaniment in your headphones changes automatically when you cross the threshold of a new album. Björk blinks oddly from the Post album cover but gets the better of me when I try to video or photograph it. She wins the staring contest and only blinks when I move on.
In one of the displayed notebooks I see she writes the words of a song in a column, one on top of the other, a totem pole of words. If any other writer did this, I might find it contrived but the way Björk approaches music, it’s seems authentic. She who sings of nothing special, just love and loss and the everyday human experience, but who is so free of rock and roll cliché in her lyrics, her appearance, her femininity, that I cannot hear anything bad said against her. Luckily no one who criticizes this exhibition has turned on Björk. They are united in the opinion that MOMA has failed her.
Anyway, I’m in the Vespertine room now and the music in my ears continues spliced and soaring, her voice, strings, synthesizer. It’s a case of over stimulation and I’m loving it.
Incidentally I will be learning to crochet over the summer. Dare I hope to create something like this, but smaller…a tea cosy?
We move to another floor and into a black room (this one counts as a room) and the doors are closed. On wall-to-wall screens, Black Lake, a 10-minute video created especially for the MOMA exhibition is played. Björk, now 49 years old, tramples across a barren post-apocolypic landscape, looking beautiful and tragic in a copper coiled dress by Iris Van Herpen. She agonizes in song over the break up of her 11-year relationship with artist Matthew Barney. It’s heart wrenching to watch. She puts everything into it, beating her chest and shaking her head free of the feelings, her face wan, her frame broken, until the very end when she walks away from us barefoot across a causeway in a gossamer multi-winged dress towards something hopeful.
The last room of the exhibition is arranged with soft red backless sofas. Inside here all of Björk’s music videos play on a 2-hour loop on a cinema-sized screen. Viewers sit, lie flat out, or perch on the floor while immersing themselves with surround sound, and enjoy the gorgeous collaborations that accompanied her songs over two decades. It’s glorious decadence to watch music videos as an art form again instead of something worthy of a hasty squint on Youtube in between checking your blog stats or Facebook posts. I stayed for over an hour gaping at the screen with a stupid smile on my face. Although lying about, many people couldn’t help bopping their heads or tapping their feet. I wanted to dance.
Now back to that totem pole of words for a moment. I think that points to what is missing from the exhibition that got everyone so riled up. The woman behind it all is absent. The requisite peep into artist’s soul, the grand reveal of her motivations, inspirations and influences, the method behind her madness, the key to her craft. Well, truth be told, MOMA doesn’t reward us with any of that. For $25 some people might have assumed they were being promised the magic formula when all they get is to sample the deliciousness one more time.
I feel sorry for them. I’m still licking my lips.