Bjork museum retrospective tests boundaries of music

Bjork museum retrospective tests boundaries of music

NEW YORK - In one of its most complex and ambitious exhibitions, the Museum of Modern Art has designed a career retrospective on Bjork that probes the question - just how does one put music on a wall?

The New York institution hopes that its approach not only does justice to the wildly experimental Icelandic singer but also provides a model for other museums through its fluid synthesis of various media forms and its priority on making the audience feel connected.

The highlight of the two-floor retrospective, which opens to the public Sunday and runs until June 7, is a walk through the artist's eight adult solo albums, with each museum-goer given a headset that, triggered by sensors, narrates a fictional biography of Bjork set to highlights of the music.

As the distinctive voice of Antony -- lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons -- entreats the visitor to slow down and reflect, the story written by Icelandic poet Sjon tells of a girl who was born in black sands and goes on to defend the weak.

The visitor sees diaries of Bjork with her musings -- "I don't recognise myself / This is very interesting," she writes in one, which turned into the song "Headphones" -- as well as some of Bjork's most sensational outfits, including the swan dress she wore to the 2001 Oscars and the dress of tiny bells designed by Alexander McQueen.

The lobbies feature music from four "instruments" including a Tesla coil that appeared on Bjork's 2011 album "Biophilia," an innovative work that was accompanied by a smartphone app -- the first to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

"Bjork was asking us to do things that pushed the boundaries of what technology could do, what sound could do, but even more importantly what we as participants in an exhibition could do," Glenn Lowry, the director of the MoMA, said at a press preview on Tuesday.

"It seemed that the rule of the game was to break the rules," he said, calling the retrospective "complicated, exhilarating and one of the most interesting projects we've ever had the chance to work on."

'Authentic experience'

If few would dispute that Bjork is innovative, the retrospective can be sure to unsettle supporters of "classic" modern art by giving a 49-year-old musician so much coveted space at one of the world's most influential museums.

In one concern acknowledged by Lowry, the retrospective has space constraints. Visitors will have to reserve time spots and wait patiently, raising fears of overcrowding or massive lines.

The retrospective is also not shy about Bjork's likeness, with pictures or statues of her at every turn. Yet the flesh-and-blood Bjork, who has worked with the MoMA for years on the project, appeared only briefly on Tuesday, in a dark room in a confining dress that resembled three giant black sea cucumbers with a net over her.

Bjork thanked the MoMA before debuting her video for the song "Black Lake," which will play in a special studio with facing screens as part of the retrospective. The song appears on "Vulnicura," her emotionally wrenching new album about her breakup with longtime partner Matthew Barney -- a prominent modern artist who has numerous works in the MoMA's collection, if not his own retrospective.

Filmed over three days in a cave in Iceland, Bjork in "Black Lake" appears in a copper-wire dress as she bangs her head toward the ground and pounds her chest. "Did I love you too much?" she sings to mournful strings interspersed with electronic beats, as the 10-minute video culminates in the eruption of purple lava.

Not turning herself completely into a museum piece, Bjork is also planning several intimate shows around New York starting Saturday at Carnegie Hall.

Klaus Biesenbach, the curator-at-large for the MoMA, said that Bjork insisted to him: "'Foremost I am a musician, I am a singer and I am a composer. Can you, and can MoMA, make an exhibition where music is an authentic experience, like a painting is an authentic experience?'"

Biesenbach voiced hope that the retrospective would inspire future projects that go beyond being documentaries or catalogues.

"I hope that this exhibition transforms itself into an instrument itself," he said.

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