On Saturday, the Björk retrospective will open to the public at MoMA in New York. It's a stiflingly small exhibit compared to her almost 40-year body of work (she released her first solo album in 1977, at the age of 12), and it focuses primarily on her notebooks and costumes from the 20-some years since Debut, along with an audio component that includes a metaphorical fairytale and her music. I liked it both because of, and despite all this. A lot of other people, many men, really did not.
On Monday, MoMA held a press preview of the show that was apparently quite packed, because most reviews groused about it (and likely replicated how crowded the show will be for its duration, as it really is stuffed into a maze of absurdly small rooms).
At New York, inveterate critic Jerry Saltz went straight for the jugular, titling his review "MoMA's Björk Disaster" (!) and writing that though he enjoys Björk's music, the show is a "discombobulated mess." I generally like Saltz's criticism very much, though much of this piece, as well as those by writers Saltz cited from ArtNews and The Guardian, were more mired in a general disdain for curator Klaus Biesenbach—surely something that affects the art world but feels somewhat vestigial in context. The argument, loosely, was that Biesenbach has of late gone for showier, perhaps more populist, marquee exhibits, which apparently sacrifices nuance. "Back in June, I grumbled about Biesenbach being 'predictable' and a 'showman,'" wrote Saltz, "then whined about MoMA being unable to think of any other living or dead artist for such a show." At ArtNews, MH Miller claimed Biesenbach had turned MoMA into "Planet Hollywood."
Even worse was the first review I read the day I saw the exhibit, by Ben Davis of ArtNet:
What do you get from the "Björk" experience? The heart of it is something like a cross between a fashion show and a theme-park ride, though that doesn't make it sound as lame as it actually is. After waiting in a long line—and this is MoMA-plus-a-celebrity, so long lines are part of the experience—you strap on a small iPod and headphones for a "psychographic journey" through Björk's oeuvre.
Because, as we all know, fashion cannot be art, right?!
Even with the somewhat confusing technology and shitty layout, even if Klaus Biesenbach is the literal devil summoned from hell to destroy New York's art scene with Las Vegas showiness and offensive architecture fountaining straight from his demon phallus, the dismissiveness of the show didn't quite sit right with me. Most reviewers disclaimed their pieces with underlying love of Björk's work, but even some defenses of how she "deserved better" (which, yes—I wanted much much more, and bigger rooms, to boot) did relatively little to contextualize the art that was there.
I saw the exhibit on Wednesday night, at the MoMA's Armory Party, which I got into gratis via a friend (he's not in the art world; he helped book the DJs). Despite the fact that MoMA was packed and the champagne overflowed, the lines to actually see the exhibit were relatively short (likely owing to the dance party on the main floor) and I was able to go through it two separate times. I watched the cavernous, gorgeous "Black Lake" video first, on two screens with iridescent lava flowing, perhaps an extended metaphor for the vag art and the emergence of a new, less pained Björk in the end, like she had given birth to herself. The video, which was ten minutes long and created as a new piece for the retrospective, very specifically placed her back in Iceland—with its volcanos and caves and other vast expanses of preternaturally beautiful terrain—so when I plopped the headphones on for the walkthrough and an enchanting fairytale began in my ears, it felt appropriately centered.
The exhibit calcified Björk's process for me in a way that it hasn't before, even in over 20 years of listening to her music and thinking about her art both solo and with The Sugarcubes. Songlines was another main gripe of art critics, the way it was an imprecise technology that wouldn't let you rewind (and, yeah, wouldn't a selectable playlist have been easier?). But I didn't really care, because I was so taken with the objects. And no, I'm not more interested in Björk as a famous person than I am in art, as ArtNet's review suggested the public might be. (They might be, but there might be explicable reasons for that, that have nothing to do with celebrity. Perhaps because the actual populism of pop music has bridged the difference between the masses and higher art better and more effectively than many art institutions have.)
The presence of Björk's notebooks were a demystification of her process, particularly for a woman whose artwork is seen as mostly unknowable—intangible? magical?—and mystifying. As a writer, I adore looking at peoples' notebooks, their collages, and while I'm no visual art critic I'm always stricken by how little documentation there seems to be regarding women's processes, whether in visual art, music, film, or other artistic pursuits. We all know why that is. But I want to see how other women do shit. I am still thinking about the notes and letters included in a Diane Arbus exhibit at SF MoMA, which I saw in 2004. While Songlines could have contextualized Björk's notebooks a bit more, their existence, surrounded by her elaborate gorgeous costumes from videos and appearances, place her thought process in context with the music she was working on at the time: we see in her journals hand-drawn sheet music, lyrics written in Icelandic and translated to English, lyrics scratched out and flipped and, in one case, a glue-sticked collage of what appear to be the clean, close-up teeth of a rodent, cut from a magazine.
Her costumes, the other major part of the exhibition, were the most stunning, and I couldn't help but wonder if there would have been this much disdain were it at the Costume Institute at the Met, where fashion and other "womanly" concerns are taken as the art they are as a matter of course. Of course Björk's Alexander McQueen bell dress was on exhibit, its construction completely flooring—a bell collar and a bell skirt made of common jingle bells into an utterly uncommon gown. There was the dress from Biophilia, designed by Iris van Herpen, a perfect collaborator for Björk: van Herpen uses inventive technologies to create her profoundly artistic work (3D printed dresses, for one). The intricacies that went into the Biophilia dress's bulbous exoskeleton are the highest level of craft, its plasticky layers molding out a breastplate and hips. Hussain Chalayan's Tyvek/Air Mail blazer was shown, and there were other miniature pieces of ephemera, like a crystal mask by Val Garland and the red boots from her "Hyperballad" video, made by Walter van Bierendonck, as artistic a designer as they come. As a curator of her own persona, Björk is as thoughtful and left-field as can be, and it's interesting to imagine her as a composing muse to fashion as artistry. More so, it gave a glimpse into her cross-disciplinary approach to art, something I immediately viewed as "feminist multitasking"—the pathos of juggling everything when a woman's work, so to speak, is never done.
But. Am I missing something other critics can see, or were they missing something I could? At the Times, Roberta Smith disliked it too; I trust her, and found her piece measured and less concerned with Biesenbach as a dude. However, reading many other critiques, I couldn't help but think about the "Women's Work" wing at the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which posits:
Throughout the history of art, decoration and domestic handicrafts have been regarded as women's work, and as such, not considered "high" or fine art. Quilting, embroidery, needlework, china painting, and sewing—none of these have been deemed worthy artistic equivalents to the grand mediums of painting and sculpture. The age-old aesthetic hierarchy that privileges certain forms of art over others based on gender associations has historically devalued "women's work" specifically because it was associated with the domestic and the "feminine."
In the quest for a "female aesthetic" or artistic style specific to women, many 1970s feminist artists sought to elevate "women's craft" to the level of "high art," and away from its derogatory designation as "low art" or "kitsch." As Lucy Lippard explained in her 1973 essay, "Household Images in Art," previously women artists had avoided "'Female techniques' like sewing, weaving, knitting, ceramics, even the use of pastel colors (pink!) and delicate lines—all natural elements of artmaking," for fear of being labeled "feminine artists." The Women's Movement changed that, she argued, and gave women the confidence to begin "shedding their shackles, proudly untying the apron strings—and, in some cases, keeping the apron on, flaunting it, turning it into art."6
Similarly, it was hard to not feel like the pieces shown have been codified as "women's" art—documentation and experimentation and ornamentation that just weren't "good enough" for such a vaunted institution as MoMa. Just as weaving and ceramics were once seen as unserious, "low art," does it not also register that women's first-person essaying is often dismissed and fashion is generally seen as silly and trivial? It's something I considered all throughout the exhibit, both times I saw it.
At FACT, my friend and colleague Claire Lobenfeld also wrote an observation that didn't get bogged down in the Biesenbach/organizational minutiae, and this passage about "Songlines" was the most salient:
It's when the narrator begins to talk about "the girl" discovering emotional disparities in every heart that you realize that this is not a collection and celebration of Björk's music, but a brand new piece of art, charting her growth into womanhood and motherhood and the development of romance that will ultimately fall apart.
The two times I weaved through the exhibit, I only listened to bits and pieces of the narrative, my own remix project while I gawked at this notebook passage or that tiny detail in costuming. I flouted the rules and went backwards; when the audio got messed up I just focused on the visuals. After reading Lobenfeld's point, though, I wish I had been more methodical about it, and will probably go back just to do so (crowds and all). That said, the objects carried so much weight for me on their own—not as a Rock Hall of Fame exhibit, as some have sniped, but as actual art—that I don't even know if the audio was totally necessary, particularly because all her music is imprinted in my DNA at this point anyway. Would I have wanted more from her retrospective? Sure, but I've always wanted to know more about Björk—and with her latest album, Vulnicura, being her most personally, emotionally baring maybe ever, I think it's fine that this is a sort of reboot, a rebirth as when she emerged from the cave in "Black Lake." It surely won't be her last, either.
Images via Getty.
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