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Bjork at MoMA: It's not rational or informational so leave your brain at the door




MOMA
"Bjork. Still from "Black Lake," commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015.
Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian"


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The Bjork exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) just opened to the public to much fanfare — and even more media backlash.

Jerry Saltz of Vulture.com called it "MoMA's Bjork Disaster," and the Washington Post published a review titled "Why is MoMA featuring an exhibit showcasing Bjork’s pretentiousness?" It's an unusually harsh dig for something associated with Bjork. 

We couldn't get to New York to check it out ourselves, so we asked producer Sarah Lilley to take us into the museum (you should really listen to the audio for the full effect): 

For Bjork's entire career, I've been a fan. It doesn't make me special, but I am carrying that mindset into the exhibit with me, along with the nasty reviews I've read. 

Some critics have bashed the nefarious pact between MoMA, pop culture and commerce. While others have snarked about the tone of the exhibit, as if Bjork were the weird girl in high school, embarrassing everyone. So, I'm putting on this Volkswagen-sponsored headset and thinking: Fine — let's just do this.

Passing through a long, narrow corridor, I arrive at the opening chapter, devoted to Bjork's 1993 album "Debut."

I'm on a balcony overhanging a voluminous atrium, and on a three-story wall just opposite is projected the joyously low-tech video for "Big Time Sensuality."

There's a case of early handwritten notebooks, and a peculiar, 2-foot-high model of Bjork from the album cover. A woman's voice weaving in and out of the background is telling me a story in a thick Icelandic accent.

Whether the narration is interesting or annoying is up to you — no reason it can't be both. I pass into a dark room, devoted to the album "Post", and my iPod automatically advances a track. 

In a spotlight is the jacket made of airmail paper, which she wore on the album cover, and more notebooks. I've always lazily imagined that Bjork's songs just arrive fully-formed, so it's nice to see the work here: the crossed-out lyrics and looping diagrams. 

There's a projection on the wall that that makes me feel as if I'm in the "Hyperballad" video, with blinking red, LED-ish lights and trailing clouds.

The next album-rooms continue all dark and close-quarters. Highlights include the thrill of seeing those robots from "All is Full of Love" — though it's also sad seeing them lifeless and behind glass.

"Pagan Poetry's" topless wedding dress is radiant on a transparent Bjork mannequin. She's rotating and leaning back rapturously, while we stare — embarrassed at the shocking intimacy of the song "Cocoon."

My favorite chamber is the one devoted to "Medulla," her mostly a cappella album. A plaster-white Bjork with lifelike eyes wears a stupendous dress that's encrusted with little bells. A red-neon outline of an orifice graces the ceiling. There's space for a handful of people to relax on covered banquettes, which are the jaws in this suggested mouth of a room.

I move on to Volta, which has the most artifacts but feels the least energized — even with its crocheted rainbow outfits and a painted backdrop of the "Wanderlust" video. It's like a diorama in a natural history museum.

It funnels me into "Biophilia," a narrow cul-de-sac of twinkling stars. At the far end, like an altar, is a flesh-tone Bjork with that orange poof of a wig. She's in a bright blue dress made from countless strips of arched plastic, forming turbines. It bubbles out at the breasts and the hips in an ecstasy of female geometry. The room gets crowded because everyone realizes it's the end and we're not ready to exit. 

But we do. I turn in my iPod and head down to the black box theater on the second floor. It's a hot cave of felt which is molded into little volcano shapes all over the walls and ceiling. I sit on the floor to watch "Black Lake," the commissioned video for Bjork's new song. It, too, begins in a cave. 

With searing grief, and beating her chest, she crawls out through a rocky fissure of tectonic plates. It's a powerful reminder of Bjork as an unparalleled force of musical expression — though some reviews found it "melodramatic," which is unfortunate. 

As for the critics who've regarded the exhibit as akin to "Disney-meets-Hard-Rock-Cafe," that's seems like a convenient quip to me. Years ago, Drew Daniel, who's a longtime collaborator of Bjork's, told me that "irony is a condom of the mind" — and that might just apply to some of the reactions to this show. 

Certainly, MoMA could have done better by Bjork in so many ways. But the pleasure to be found in this exhibit, should you seek it — "this mission, should you choose to accept it" — it's not rational or informational. Best just leave your brain at the door.

Bjork exhibit is on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art through June 7th.



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