“So I have been doing a little reading and trying to find folks who could help me define what ‘ism’ I am,” Icelandic pop star Björk wrote to writer Timothy Morton in an email in October. In a lengthier email, Morton responded, “I have no idea what ism you are really of course (he said sincerely and truthfully), and my own ism doesn’t seem to have made itself very obvious!”
This exchange is one of many that took place as Björk readied her MoMA retrospective, which has been eviscerated by critics. Morton and Björk’s emails appear in Björk, the much more pleasant catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. It takes the form of a black slipcase covered with a nondescript musical score that contains a poster of Björk, stickers, four booklets, and a poetry book, and it amounts less to a catalogue than a full-on art project.
Considering how offbeat Björk is, it’s a shame that Björk and Morton’s emails, collected in a booklet called “This Huge Sunlit Abyss From the Future Right Next to You…,” don’t come first. (One of the few normal things about this catalogue is that its pages are numbered.) They are the perfect introduction to Björk, whose music is so unabashedly personal that it needs little explanation. Sometimes, her music is sexy. Other times, it is subtly disturbing. Most of the time, it is unrepentantly weird. Like it or not, though, her croaky, rough vocals are hypnotic, and the email exchanges are a lot like that. “This Huge Sunlit Abyss” is a nice substitute for the artist Q&A that comes at the back of so many exhibition catalogues. It is a revealing exchange.
Forget the scholarly material—some of it good, some of it less so—that comes first. “This Huge Abyss” and Sjón’s poetry book “The Triumphs of a Heart: A Psychographic Journey Through the First Seven Albums of Björk” are the most accurate portrayals of Björk here. (Apparently, none of the contributors knew that Björk was going to release Vulnicura, her ninth album, which is a response to her recent breakup with Matthew Barney.)
In the ’80s, Björk was in a band called Medúsa with Sjón, and the two have been friends ever since. No wonder “The Triumphs of a Heart” is so personal. Sjón rethinks Björk’s career as a coming-of-age in which a girl comes to a city, only to grow into a woman through her experience. Every album marks a new event in Björk’s life, and Sjón uses each one to strikes a dissonant, lyrical chord. In the end, the girl, now a woman, soldiers on. “The heart … / the heart keeps beating …,” Sjón writes, “beating triumphantly … / triumphantly with the earth … / the earth …” (Sjón’s text is also the audio guide for the show. To put it bluntly, it’s much smarter when you don’t hear it read to you.)
Sjón leaves out the part where her beating heart leads her to finally agree, in 2012, to a Klaus Biesenbach-curated retrospective, which is probably for the better.
There is a big difference between the three essays and the two poetic works. Biesenbach’s introduction gives a brief overview of Björk’s work and some biography, but it spends too much time justifying why MoMA did the show in the first place. It feels more like an extended exhibition proposal than an essay, and one that views her entire career as leading up to this show. In his section on the importance of collaboration to Björk’s practice, Biesenbach writes, “The matryoshka-like structure of ‘Bachelorette,’ filmed in 1997, could be regarded as a metaphor for, or premonition of, Björk’s further artistic life to come; in a way as an anticipation of her show at MoMA—a retrospective that unfolded in her work through a script that was a self-fulfilling vision in its artifice and in its character of a vision of a memory in a vision of a memory in a vision of a memory.” Huh?
Biesenbach does make some good points. He traces the intense honesty of Björk’s music back to the autobiographical performances of Marina Abramović and Ulay. Those two could barely separate life from art. Likewise for Björk, whose lyrics deal with her love life head-on. In “It’s Not Up to You,” she goes so far as to repeat “I love him, I love him” until her voice is a whimper.
But then Biesenbach also makes some pretty preposterous points. He suggests “All Is Full of Love,” the excellent Chris Cunningham-directed music video in which two cyborgs with Björk’s face have an erotic experience, as an influence for Jordan Wolfson and Pierre Huyghe’s robots. What’s his proof for this?
Biesenbach raises the sticky issue of identity in Björk’s work, and Nicola Dibben, who previously wrote a book on Björk in 2009, picks up where Biesenbach leaves off with “Björk Creating: Myths of Creating and Creation.” The essay begins as one about Björk’s creative process, but it turns into Dibben philosophizing about Björk’s sexual politics, an odd choice indeed, considering Björk has publicly said she isn’t a feminist. “Björk Creating” is problematic, mostly because Björk’s music touches on something more universal, or at least something more nuanced, than destroying the patriarchy. It’s about nature, technology, humanity, and the connection between the three. Feminism is only a tangential part of it.
Alex Ross’s “Beyond Delta: The Three Streams of Björk” is the most wide-reaching essay of the three and far and away the best. Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker, unpretentiously maps Björk’s musical inspirations, considering everything from John Cage, to Thai pop, to Meredith Monk, to Icelandic folk songs. It is clear that MoMA’s show does her work an extreme disservice, but Björk deserves Ross’s rich essay and parts of this book.