Björk’s MoMA Retrospective: When Technology Fails Innovation

A still from Bjork's "Black Lake" film, commissioned by MoMA.
A still from Bjork’s “Black Lake” film, commissioned by MoMA.

Yesterday morning, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I found myself standing a few feet away from someone clad in a black cactus costume. Its face was covered, and thus it took me a minute to realize the cactus was Björk. Situated in a room custom-designed for the occasion (6,000 soundproofing cones covered the walls and ceiling),the Icelandic icon introduced her new MoMA-commissioned piece, the short film “Black Lake.” “I’m very grateful that Klaus [Biesenbach] convinced me to do this exhibition,” Björk timidly announced, referencing the 12 years it took MoMA’s curator at large to snag her for an exhibition. “It’s been quite a journey, and a close relationship that I’m really grateful for.”

With that, Björk and her team exited the room, and “Black Lake” played. Björk runs barefoot through the caves of Iceland for much of the video, which is set to the 10-minute song of the same name that forms the centerpiece of her new album, VulnicuraCocooned in a sculptural dress with serpent-like straps, Björk spends most of the film on a Moses-like quest, singing lines like, “Family was always our sacred mutual mission, which you abandoned” and “You have nothing to give, your heart is hollow.” Suddenly she is free, spinning through lush, green landscapes of her native land in a frock of ribbons. The film captures the chronology at the heart of Vulnicura, which chronicles the dissolution of Björk’s longtime partnership with multimedia artist Matthew Barney in the months leading up to and directly following their breakup.

Klaus Biesenbach, the chief curator behind the Bjork retrospective, and MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry at Tuesday's press conference. (photo by Jillian Mapes /Flavorwire)
Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of the Bjork retrospective, & MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry at Tuesday’s press conference. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)

The ending of “Black Lake” makes a clear statement: Björk has made it through the other side, or as she phrases it on Vulnicura‘s closing track, “Quicksand,” “When I’m broken I am whole.” Later, at a press conference, a half-stunned Biesenbach would tell the media, “We didn’t know there would be an album when we started working on ‘Black Lake.'”

Make no mistake: this 10-minute film is the only reason to see Björk’s MoMA retrospective, which runs March 8 through June 7.

The bulk of the exhibit — its “Songlines” section — is a technological mess. Of course, one wouldn’t know this based on how MoMA and the exhibit’s sponsor, Volkswagen, spoke of “Songlines” yesterday during the museum’s press presentation for the Björk retrospective. The words “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking” were tossed around with regards to the exhibit’s use of technology. Those descriptors would be generous even if the tech aspect of “Songlines” functioned correctly, but alas. Frankly, it was surprising coming from an artist who went to great lengths to declare her own Biophilia the “first app album” in 2011.

When the exhibit opens next week, expect timed tickets, long lines, and little payoff. While only 100 people will be permitted to tour the exhibit on MoMA’s third floor, I’m having a hard time imagining less than half that number occupying the small space at one time. I toured Björk’s iconic couture from Alexander McQueen and Marjan Pejoski with maybe 10 other members of the press, in addition to at least that many MoMA security guards. Even then, I wasn’t sure where to stand. In most museum exhibits, this wouldn’t be such an issue; stand wherever so long as the art is visible. But “Songlines” is an interactive exhibit that’s supposed to seamlessly synch narration and music on attendees’ Bluetooth-connected headphones to their location in the space. Besides the fact that there’s too much audio and not enough visual, it’s hard to believe that the geolocation technology used in the exhibit was adapted from Volkswagen’s own hands-free features.

Bjork's 2001 Oscars dress, designed by Marjan Pejoski. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)
Bjork’s 2001 Oscars dress, designed by Marjan Pejoski. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)
Costumes from Bjork's "Volta" era (2007), from Bernhard Willhelm and Icelandic Love Corporation. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)
Costumes from Bjork’s “Volta” era (2007), from Bernhard Willhelm and Icelandic Love Corporation. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)
One of the McQueen dresses on display: 2004's Bell Dress. (photo by Jillian Mapes /Flavorwire)
One of the McQueen dresses on display: 2004’s Bell Dress. (photo by Jillian Mapes/Flavorwire)

Given the length of the audio guide, museum personnel suggest spending 40-45 minutes in the space, while the narration itself encourages taking contemplative breaks. I’m not sure where, exactly, attendees are supposed to stand in these small rooms, which contain about 20 outfits and props from Björk’s innovative videography, plus her diary entries starting as early as age nine. I sat for a “contemplative break” in front of one of two McQueen dresses in the exhibit, and still it only took me 20 minutes to absorb. I spent more time sitting on a red beanbag in the dark room where they loop Björk’s classic music videos, from the likes of Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze.

“Songlines” works chronologically through Björk’s albums in a fluid way throughout the space. I would often find myself moving a step or two in one direction, and inadvertently skipping the narration from the Vespertine era (2001) to Medúlla (2004). Step back, and the guide doesn’t quite know how to react. Perhaps the V&A’s “David Bowie Is” exhibit, which recently ended its showing at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spoiled me for art shows of this ilk. The Bowie exhibit features a similar audio component as Björk’s retrospective, but the rooms are big and defined. There are hundreds of artifacts of all different mediums to pore over, and the audio guide rarely trips up as one moves through the space. As I wrote last year, “‘David Bowie Is’ makes the Rock Hall look like a student art show. It was the greatest single experience I’ve ever had in a museum in my entire life.”

After three years in the making, I had hoped Björk’s retrospective would at least provide some sort of experimental alternative to the Bowie exhibit’s new gold standard in this arena. Though MoMA would have you believe its third music curatorial initiative — following Kraftwerk and Antony and the Johnsons’ “Swanlights,” both from 2012 — is innovative, it’s hard to appreciate its vision when the technology is so flawed. “She’s asking people to slow down,” Biesenbach added towards the end of yesterday’s press conference, when queried about the unconventional flow of “Songlines.” It’s a big idea in theory — Björk and MoMA trying to reframe how museumgoers move through an intimate space — but ultimately it’s too much to expect of a collection of personal artifacts, even from a musical visionary.