As you've probably read by now if you're in the art-forward set, the reviews of the Björk ‘mid-career retrospective’ at the MOMA, which opened to the public Sunday, are in and all is not full of love.
The reviews are so bad, they inspired an Artnet round-up: "6 Best Takedowns of MoMA's Appalling Björk Show." I’m sorry to report that 'I've seen it all,' and they have a point. The worst part was Songlines, a 40-minute audio tour of Björk’s ‘journey’ through life. A complete failure of experience design, the hard-to-follow narrative is crammed into a tiny tunnel with cramped offshoots, causing traffic jams that prevent the artifacts, mostly costumes from an impressive list of fashion designers, from being viewed properly. Volunteers at the end of the exhibit said the preview audiences were rushing through, exiting after just 20 minutes. Two video stations — Black Lake, a sound cave featuring a stunning sweep across the volcanic fields of Björk’s homeland, and a second dark room where a 3-hour reel of her videos play — though more easily experienced, hardly get across the ingenuity of Björk as an artist.
But here’s the thing: Björk has been at the cutting edge for over 20 years, a spring eternal of strange and beautiful mythologies born of art and technology. Let’s set aside the complete failure at user experience design at the MOMA and tour Björk's career here as a technology-savvy, boundary-pushing artist, worthy of a better museum show.
The woman who sampled volcanic sounds for her beats on Homogenic and crackling ice for a track on Vespertine, practically invents new instruments for every endeavor. For her album Biophilia, she collaborated with Andy Cavatorta to create Gravity Harps. Rising out of a nest of wires and laptops on the grand staircase of MOMA are the two wooden towers that support the gyrating pendulums as they swing back and forth across the picks. A complicated feat of robotics, physics and python, the Gravity Harps and the music they produce are mesmerizing. Standing on the staircase, people marvel at the notes appearing on the screen, a union of technological precision and human composition. Sadly the exactitude and awe of this performative sculpture will not be matched by the exhibit upstairs. The Gravity Harps are only one example of Björk’s career-long investigation into the tension between humanity and machines, but instead of latching onto a specific curatorial inquiry, the artifacts presented in Songlines are lacking context or critical thought.
When I say ‘sexy robots,’ odds are the first thing that comes to mind is the Björk-on-Björk silicone sensuality that is the Chris Cunningham collaboration ‘All is Full of Love’. The video inspired science fiction filmmakers, and paired with the powerful vocals, launched an entire generation of robosexuals. An impressive piece of mechanical choreography, it asks a defining question of our modern age: is love what makes us human?
Not only was the video considered a landmark moment in computer animation, but the video alone has been included in numerous museum shows, and is, in fact, part of the permanent collection at MOMA. Why then, were we only shown lifeless robot props, imprisoned behind plexi glass, in a fluorescent tomb rather than a conjugal bed? The exhibit was missing the compassion that the song and video did such a spectacular job of infusing into the machines in the first place.
Some of her music video collaborations have actually brought science to the cultural consciousness. The animation of Hollow is hands down the best way to teach any class of biology students about the industrious interior of a cell nucleolus. The exploration of innerspace employs X-ray crystallography modeling to zoom in from the tissue level all the way into the monster like replizome structure that spits out strands of DNA in time with the pulsating organ. The fact that Bjork, an artist who has spun up some incredible dream worlds recognizes that the reality of our own bodies can be just as inspiring is a step forward for us all. I have no doubt the video will inspire future biochemists the same way that Star Wars inspired people to pursue robotics.
Speaking of Biophilia, you may remember that not only did Björk put out an album and corresponding music videos, but also released a musical interface app. The Biophilia app was the very first app to be acquired by a museum, and yet somehow this piece, which was deemed worthy of the museum walls years before this exhibit was planned, is not included in the show. Instead it is located around the corner in the design wing, three tablets with headphones and very little context. The app itself does a much better job of what I imagine fans were hoping for from the show: it allows you into Björk's creative world. One where lunar harps can be tuned by adjusting the phase of the moon, and beats are generated by major groove proteins, as if the rhythms created are as essential to life as the DNA molecules that are spinning across the screen.
The final entry on the long list of missed opportunities here was announced just a few weeks ago: Björk’s latest music video for Stonemilker will be released on Oculus Rift. Andrew Thomas Huang, who directed the Black Lake video, which was commissioned by MOMA for the show, is also directing the Oculus Rift debut. Let me put this another way: MOMA seems to have had all the moving parts to unveil the first ever, high-profile, virtual-reality music video in its exhibit, and failed to do so. Now I know that the technical details of ushering an audience through that kind of personalized experience may have seemed daunting, but I assure you it would have been worth the trouble. Instead, we have a lot of talk about an ‘interactive’ exhibit, that may employ technologies like Bluetooth to accomplish its location-triggered audio tour, but utterly lacks the magic that might have been.
Björk has proved that she can use technology to create magic. Whether explaining the circuitry of a television set via fairy tale, or expanding our minds with futuristic acrylic headdresses, Björk excels at using technology to expand our imaginations. She deserved a better show. We deserved a better show.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.