Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: Cactuses & Art

March 10, 2015

The long-awaited Björk’s exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York has opened for public on March 8th. Yet, the press preview, private views and the opening ceremony had already taken place days before the show was open for public. This show has been part of conversations and arguments not only between critics and art experts, but between ordinary people as well. After all, Björk is a celebrity, so her every public exposure other than concerts is widely followed. And, of course, long queues are inevitable in front of the MoMA in the coming days and weeks.

The expectations regarding the show were quite high. Both the critics and art lovers were truly excited about this project. This brilliant Icelandic singer, composer and songwriter brought the avant garde to the mainstream music industry and she moved the boundaries of music video production, live performance, costume. Her work influenced new directions in a wide range of music genres. Therefore, the news about her exhibition at MoMA didn’t come as much of a surprise. She is an artist, after all. However, the first critiques and impressions of the exhibition are anything else but positive. Disaster, hotchpotch, Hollywood came to MoMA – those are the words that are dominating the headlines about Björk’s exhibition. What happened? - the question many critics posed.

So, what is the actual problem and what went wrong with this long awaited show at one of the world’s most famous museums?

Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: About Cactuses and Art
Installation view, Björk at MoMA (photo by Benjamin Sutton Hyperallergic)

What Went Wrong?

As Jason Farago noticed in his article in the Guardian, the least interesting question about the Björk’s retrospective is whether she deserves one. No critique is directed to the singer herself and her extraordinary work. It is truly amazing how a softly spoken woman from such a small country as Iceland managed to become such a powerful figure in the music industry. The term “powerful figure” is to be understood in a symbolic sense, as an artist whose work has largely changed the direction of many aspects of modern music industry. Björk made the line between fine art and pop culture meaningless. The problem with the exhibition is that this contribution to art in general by the Icelandic diva is invisible. The show, according to Farago, is without any logic, it does not tell any story and yet it was announced as a retrospective.

Similar view shares M.H. Miller in the artnews, who felt embarrassed after leaving the exhibition, embarrassed both for Björk and MoMA. In his opinion, the problem is not the fact that a pop culture icon has an exhibition at the world’s most influential museum of contemporary art. The museum already produced similar exhibitions. The problem is that the main impression is that the artist is not even the main subject of the exhibition. Finally, in a very descriptive and objective critique written by Hardeep Phull in the New York Post, the author concludes that the exhibition is weak, information is scant, the experience is negligible and the viewer is left unable to understand the  difference between the artist and her peers. If that’s true, why was Björk’s retrospective organized in the first place? There is no doubt that there is material for the Icelandic icon’s exhibition, but the show seems to be simply - curated badly.

Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: About Cactuses and Art
Björk - Still from Black Lake, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015

Klaus Biesenbach’s Curatorial Work

Speaking of curation, Bjork Retrospective was curated by the museum’s chief curator at large, Mr. Klaus Biesenbach. His experience is stunning, as he worked with some of the most recognized contemporary artists. However, many critiques are targeting the curatorial work of the show. For example, the visitors are given a mandatory audio guide for the main part of the show that revolves along Songlines, a collection of lyrics, costumes, props and more from Björk’s career. However, the narrative is more annoying than informative, as Hardeep Phull noticed. Technically, everything is perfect, but the sound design and her songs are overlaid by kitschy narration written by the Icelandic poet Sjón and read by the actor Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, as Farago wrote. What exactly is the purpose of these narrations accompanying her songs and what is the purpose of many references to her Icelandic roots, if there is no contextual background? What information the viewer gets about Björk’s influences during her career? According to the vast majority of reviews written about the exhibition, the answer would be – nothing. And that is one of the major failures of the show, the lack of contextualization. The images of her cover albums, costumes she used, songs –it is all beautiful and accomplished in aesthetical terms. But, a retrospective of an artist’s oeuvre should go far beyond that. Apparently, Mr. Biesenbach wanted to stress out something else, yet it’s not quite clear what.

Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: About Cactuses and Art
Sean Hellfritsch and Isaiah Saxon, Wanderlust Painbody Head, Costume, and Yak (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer Hyperallergic)

Celebrities and MoMA or Is There Something Else Behind This Exhibition?

This is not the first time a pop star exhibits in such a renowned museum or gallery, and it certainly won’t be the last. And there is nothing wrong with that, since the distinction between contemporary art and popular art or film and music industry gets blurrier by the day. Of course, one must make a clear distinction between visual artists who have become celebrities and celebrities who have been labeled as visual artists. Marina Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective from 2010 The Artist is Present (also curated by Klaus Biesenmach), launched this performance art genius to the celebrity status. So, Björk and her celebrity status surely didn’t cause the apparent fiasco of the exhibition.

As three Hyperallergic editors — Elisa Wouk Almino, Jillian Steinhauer, and Benjamin Sutton discuss in their article about the show , one of the rare good things they saw in this exhibition is the fact they saw Björk live, who was there dressed as a cactus, as Almino notes. And with a couple of interesting songs and videos (especially the MoMA-commissioned video Black Lake) that was it. So, a cactus-like designed dress worn by Björk will be the only thing remembered from the show? If that is true, the curator has then completely failed in the task to provide a more informative and suitable platform for exhibiting the most valuable pieces of Björk’s career.

Another significant review was written by Jerry Saltz. In the article entitled MoMA’s Björk Disaster, he goes quite deep and discusses the connections between this exhibition and the museum’s management projects. He argues that museums and pop culture go together just fine. One advantage of such projects is that they bring much more visitors than normally. The lines are longer, more tickets are sold and, in MoMA’s case, it shows the need for more space. He writes that “there's the museum's twisted bid to transform itself into something like a multiplex mall, specializing in whiz-bang pop-cultural events”. Saltz brings up the question of a Diller Scofidio + Renfro expansion plan meant to resolve MoMA’s space problems. Since Björk’s exhibition will be visited by a tremendous number of people, there is no doubt that the requests for the expansion will double, and someone will have financial gain from that. But, even if there is a show of a pop culture star, the design of the dress or the color of the hair should not be the main part of the impressions from the visit.

Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: About Cactuses and Art
Björk – Mutual Core, video still, 2012

What’s Next?

The show will go on, despite all of these quite brutal reviews, and the queues in front of the MoMA will definitely be longer than usual. Björk performed at Carnegie Hall on March 7th, where she presented her artistic virtues in all their brilliance. Whatever actually happened with this apparent debacle, whether it was the curatorial mistakes or the financial agenda of the institution, it seems that Roberta Smith, in her article in the New York Times , hit the nail on the head reminding - Björk should have said “No, thanks” when the Museum of Modern Art called. Still, just as a reminder, the exhibition will be on view until June 7th.

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Björk’s Exhibition at MoMA: About Cactuses and Art
Björk, Vespertine, 2001

Featured Image: Björk (AFP Getty)

All images used for illustrative purposes only.