Let’s get this out of the way: MoMA’s “Björk” doesn’t live up to the hype. The exhibit, which officially opened this weekend, is a paltry look at the career of an artist who has stunned, confused, and enchanted an international audience since the ’70s. The mid-career retrospective by Klaus Biesenbach, the museum’s chief curator at large, exists in four parts: in the lobby, where you’ll find Björk’s massive instruments from 2011’s Biophilia. There’s Songlines, a visual-audio tour. And there’s the “Black Lake” video room, and another small theater screening the singer’s music videos. These four entities are somewhat disjointed, and—probably to the dismay of longtime Björk fans—fall short of showing us the Björk behind the curtain.
And for that, critics have pilloried it. The New York Times says that when MoMA asked Björk to do the exhibit, she “should have trusted her first response—No thanks,” but tosses the blame on the museum itself, calling the “underdone” exhibit “a glaring symbol of the museum’s urge to be all things to all people, its disdain for its core audience, its frequent curatorial slackness, and its indifference to the handling of crowds and the needs of its visitors.” New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz called it an “embarrassing pop-programming nadir.”
In the days following the museum’s press preview, it’s difficult to see through all that shade. But the reviews aren’t wrong. Near the entry to one of the theaters, cover art from Björk’s albums are tacked up dorm-room style. Songlines (which requires a timed entry ticket, and seems like the most ambitious section) in particular has a major design problem. The walking tour means to guide you chronologically through Björk’s evolution as an artist, album by album, via glass boxes full of her handwritten songwriting notebooks and scant displays of some her wild costumes. Before you walk in, you get outfitted with a headphones and an iPod, which talk to sensors in Songlines to cue up certain audio chapters paired with the displays. Problem is, the 40-minute the music-and-spoken-word guide is a bizarre narrative that’s paced much more slowly than the visuals, leaving visitors to weirdly linger throughout while the audio catches up.
That said, here’s some peculiar advice: either don’t see Songlines at all, or try to see it twice. It’s an exhibit about songwriting that might take a little extra attention and unpacking to be worthwhile. Björk worked with Icelandic poet Sjón and the actor Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir (who narrates) on the audio portion, which is a metaphor-laden epic about a “girl” (Björk) encountering kingdom after kingdom. Some of Björk’s most energetic hits play in the background as Vilhjálmsdóttir tells you all about the “girl” singing on the flatbed of a truck, with purple fur and her rib cage exploding and so on and on. It doesn’t totally make sense until you scan the pages of Björk’s many notebooks on display. Scribbled in pencil are nearly incomprehensible snippets like: “Cut my hair off/By the time it reaches my shoulders/I’m gonna call you/(Spring turts, spring turts)/Germs are cleverer than men.”
Those notebooks are like winking little clues there to remind you that Björk is first and foremost a composer and a songwriter. It’s largely up to the visitor to interpret it all, but you can imagine that when she reaches the “manmade landscape” that “reminded her of the lava,” she’s reached New York City. When “the girl played cave with a magical boy,” Björk is telling you what it felt like to fall in love with her now ex-husband, the artist Matthew Barney. “The girl’s home had become home to a new heart. A baby girl’s heart.” That’s the singer’s pregnancy. Later, “There’s only matter and moment. Matter and moment. Heat and sounds. The high frequencies the crackle of the light.” That’s Björk’s fascination with atoms and science that inspired Biophilia.
You might not learn anything new, but you get to do something new. You can walk through a freshly made Björk song-poem-epic fable, that, like much of music and art, is about emotional truths rather than factual ones. Some of it sounds silly, and most of it’s experimental. And for Björk—a woman who in one old music video can be seen dancing around a living room with a life-sized, suit-wearing house cat—is that really so off base?