Ahead of a huge retrospective at MoMA in New York, the exhibition’s curator looks back at the work of a truly unique artist.
For the 2015 exhibition at MoMA, Björk created the work Black Lake, which was filmed on location in Iceland during the summer of 2014. She conceived the song’s visualisation with director Andrew Thomas Huang, with whom she had previously worked on the video for Mutual Core. Black Lake is an 11-minute-long looped composition that deals with the expression of the pain that Björk went through during her separation from artist Matthew Barney; a cathartic acknowledgment of this pain, as if only dying to be reborn.
For the video she worked with choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir on expressive, dance-like movements, through which she palpably exorcised her pain, resonating with viewers and listeners, but also making the growth, reincarnation, and rebirth of her character a necessary and natural outcome of the process.
I sat in the prep trailer during the filming of Black Lake in the Icelandic landscape. All of a sudden I found myself listening to some music that sounded otherworldly; visceral and at the same time ephemeral; very real and rooted, but nonetheless ethereal.
Outside the cave, the prep trailer, the set, walking through the lava fields of Iceland, you are as a human being by far the tallest living object. There are no trees, no large animals, just moss and very low-growing vegetation. Coming across rocks feels like the only encounter of an equal volume, another object standing across from you, the human being.
All of a sudden it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself, and the landscape inside of her–her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceive by her–are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.
Björk’s voice sounds at the same time like that of a child and that of a seductive woman: visceral and guttural, a highly personal, easily recognisable voice, with rolling Rs and a heavy accent–practically the opposite of the cleaned-up artifice of a classically trained singer. Often her singing includes inhalations and exhalations and other sounds made by the respiratory tract.
She often shouts and screams out into nature or the city, as if she were speaking with and fighting and loving it. Her singing juxtaposes the pagan and folkloric storytelling and traditional music of her native Iceland with her classical music training. Her music seems to come from an authentic and intimate inner place. It might erupt as a spontaneous urge to sing and express emotions out loud while riding in a friend’s pick-up truck, or while hiking in Iceland near her cottage. It speaks of a primal, unquestioned directness of creating while doing; composing by singing.
In Björk’s music, and in her lyrics and videos, there is curiosity and surprise; a sense of wonder and mystery, both in everyday life and in extreme situations. This sense of immediacy–a touching, a looking, a listening–seems to be present in whatever she encounters, be it the ocean or a landscape, a machine or another human being. All the encounters seem to be equal, whether with a stranger or lover, an animal or mountain, a cloud or the flashing lights of the big city. And everything leads to music: motors run, clocks tick, lungs breathe, a train provides a rhythm, the tide or a waterfall sets the pace.
Björk’s attitude to life could perhaps be described an ‘oceanic feeling’: the need to get out of the house, to go towards the sea, hike up a mountain, and feel the romantic, unthreatening, pre-religious ecstasy of being at one with the world, in love with the world, part of the world. Jóga, All is Full of Love, and Wanderlust are all odes to the joy of loving the world. Jóga is a declaration of love for the wild natural landscape of Björk’s home country. The video opens with her lying on black sand on the seashore and ends with her standing on a peak overlooking everything beneath her. She opens her body and her interior is full of rocks like a cave.
However, the metropolitan city also offers a polymorphous environment that can stimulate. There are city lights, moving traffic, and urban heartbeats. In many videos, Björk is either moving vertically or horizontally through the canyons of the city or the canyons of the countryside. For her, both the city and nature are backgrounds and foregrounds, protagonists and extras, objects and subjects, as part of an artistic practice that tries to touch it all, breathing it in, breathing it out, shouting and screaming and laughing at it, until it screams and laughs back.
Certain motifs reappear throughout the work. The embrace of urban life shown by dancing on a moving truck in Big Time Sensuality is juxtaposed with the dancing on a train moving through the countryside in I’ve Seen it All from Dancer in the Dark . Both Big Time Sensuality and Hyperballad are welcome songs of the artist greeting the big city.
In her videos and when photographed, Björk is often depicted as non-human. She can appear like a drawing, or a cartoon, or a manga character, or a wax figure, turning into a sign or symbol. She appears geisha-like on the cover of Homogenic. Her constant morphing between her own shaved head and a digital animation of a polar bear in Hunter a predecessor of her embodying an object, like the robot in All is Full of Love. In The Dull Flame of Desire, Antony Hegarty and Björk morph into one face: both strong, vulnerable feminists who are superimposed into a single person.
In All is Full of Love and Wanderlust, Björk is doubled: she is her own counterpart robot in All is Full of Love, and in Wanderlust she carries a clay body double in her backpack. In the video for Hidden Place, a small Björk can be seen in her mouth when she opens it. Often there is a fluid transition between two- and three-dimensional images, drawings, photographs, and objects.
In another motif, drawings on Björk’s face become a veil, and this mask adds a layer of content to her face, making it a work of art. Similarly, her clothing often functions like body armature, like architecture fitted exactly around the body, like a perfectly molded shell; a sometimes porous, sometimes solid membrane between her and the world. In the video Who Is It? she wears Alexander McQueen’s bell dress, the bells looking like barnacles; she becomes the bell, while Iceland appears like a moonscape.
On the cover of Volta Björk wore a piece by Bernhard Willhelm, which resembled a carved-out empty shell of a cartoon figure, and the dresses designed by Iris van Herpen for Biophilia created a body armor-like shield around the artist. The white coat in Jóga almost becomes an astronaut’s moon suit before the vast, tectonic, volcanic, black landscapes of Iceland, and in her first music video, Human Behaviour, Björk literally wears a space suit with a clear helmet on her interplanetary journey.
Black Lake, which premieres at MoMA, focused above all on the sound and projection of visuals, positioning the work as the basis of the whole exhibition. For this groundbreaking piece, filmed in a cave and a ravine during an especially cold period of summer, Icelandic rain is captured in the video’s imagery, illustrating the narrative of going through pain and arriving at a clearing.
This exhibition cements Björk’s singular place in contemporary practice and celebrates her highly original and significant music, compositions, performances and visual presentations. As an artist whose work has been felt across many disciplines, Björk will undoubtedly continue to expand the boundaries of music, art, and our understanding of the world – connecting, influencing, and inspiring.
Bjork’s work will be the focus of a large retrospective at MoMA in New York (Thames and Hudson)
This is an edited extract from Klaus Biesenbach’s essay in Björk: Archives, published by Thames & Hudson on 2 March.