The problems with Bjork’s MoMA exhibition
Commerce and celebrity are the only winners at the New York museum on this occasion
Is curator the most abused term in the arts world? It really seems as everyone is labeled a curator in 2015 if they’re just putting on a gig or an event, regardless of what it is and the thinking behind it. The actual professional and traditional meaning of the term – a person charged with and trained to oversee a gallery, museum or institution’s collections and provide the context for presentation – seems to have been lost in the wind as curator becomes a catch-all term for all manner of things.
That’s one of the first things to pop to mind when considering the Bjork retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which is running until June. It’s an exhibition which was 15 years in the making, going back to 2000 when the museum’s chief curator Klaus Biesenbach first appraoched the singer about hosting an exhibition. She was reticent then and, as she said in a recent interview with this newspaper, she still had questions about it right up to the doors opening (thought perhaps a canny operator like Bjork was getting her boot in first).
But Biesenbach gave Bjork carte blanche and what we get then is Bjork the curator’s take on her 20 years plus as a performer and artist with the stuff of eight albums distilled into a number of gallery spaces. You can clearly understand the museum’s intent when you take in the lengthy queues to see the exhibition – there are queues for every one of the five rooms once you get past the initial long queue and this visit was made on a midweek afternoon – because Bjork is great box office. Between her various live shows happening in New York venues over the last few weeks (her show in the City Center theatre was easily the best Bjork performance I’ve seen to date) and preview coverage of the MoMA show (the reviews are a different matter), Bjork was queen of the Big Apple last month.
The problem, though, is that the show just does live up to the billing, which brings us to another issue: just how do you present music in a gallery setting. In fairness to the singer, she identified the problem early on. “It’s a really functional problem”, she said in that interview, “just how do you put music and sound in a visual museum? I told the curator that it couldn’t be just memorabilia because that would be very boring, all those dresses.”
The “gúna deas” parade does feature, of course – lots of gúnas, in fact. There’s a whole wardrobe of costumes, dresses, masks and other ephemera as part of the exhibition, from the swan dress designed by Marjan Pejoski, which the singer wore to the Oscars in 2001, to various rig-outs designed by Alexander McQueen over the years for the singer. As you gawk at them, because gawking is what you do in a museum, there’s no context, no setting out just what they mean to the singer or why she went with them (something she has been happy to outline in interviews in advance). Without that sort of detail, there’s just a strong bang of the Hard Rock Café to the exhibits.
This, though, is one of the issues around music and museums worldwide. Be it the Experience Music Museum in Seattle or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, music exhibitions don’t seem to be able to escape the confines of artefacts and memorabilia. By concentrating unduly on the trappings and enforcing the commodification of the culture, museums are doing their visitors a disservice in this regard.
Removed from the protective glass or podium, one man’s guitar or one woman’s dress really does look, feel and sound the same as the next man or woman’s, but it is the music which is produced by the instrument and the cultural shifts around the music which tell a far more vivid and far-reaching tale. That story, however, is difficult to retell within the confines of an institution’s remit and resources, hence why museuems tend to stick to static displays and exhibitions. It would seem that music museums are great places to go to see and hear and experience everything, but the essence and context of pop music.
Sometimes, you’ll get an exhibition which works. The David Bowie Is exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 (and now touring) was a great example of this. The trick with putting Bowie in the confines of a museum, according to Paul Morley, who was an artistic advisor to exhibition and spoke about this at a Banter event at the time, was to refresh what an exhibition involving music is all about and show how and why an artist like Bowie actually belongs in such a setting.
Of course, there’s no question or doubt or quibble that Bjork belongs in MoMA. That’s a given. She’s one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic, innovative and interesting artists of her generation. Yet the exhibition does her no favours with its dull setting, its lack of intrigue, its failure to interrogate her artistic statements, its cluttered approach to contexualising her work and its puzzling lack of attention to detail. Maybe this was her idea – have a look at the exhibits and make your own mind up – but surely then, that’s where the museum steps in to ensure these aspects are addressed?
So, what do we get for our $25 ticket? There’s a screening room with two screens showing what is to all intents and purposes a music video for “Black Lake” from her current album “Vulnicura”. There’s another screening room showing all 32 of Bjork’s videos from “Human Behaviour” from her 1993 “Debut” album right up to the date. There are, at least, some seats so you can make yourself comfortable for the two hour duration, if you wish.
On another floor, there’s Songlines, what is a billed as “interactive, location-based audio experience” through the singer’s career and albums with a rather bland and insipid narrative by Icelandic writer and Bjork collaborator Sjón, along with the dresses and bits and pieces of her life. Finally, there are some of the instruments used on her 2011 album “Biophilia” – a gameleste (a new percussion instrument featuring gamelan-like bronze bars), pipe organ, gravity harp and Tesla coil – which play songs from that album at different points throughout the day. Her “Biophilia” app is already part of MoMA’s permanent collection.
As cool as it is to watch those mesmerising videos from Bjork’s career directed by the likes of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Andrew Thomas Huang on a proper screen with decent audio, it’s hard to escape a feeling of ‘is this it?’ as you walk through the rooms. Surely those videos tell a very distinct narrative about the singer and the progression of her career? Just how exactly did the singer who appears in the video for “Big Time Sensuality” on the back of a lorry driving through New York become the singer we now see in “Black Lake”?
You’d expect an exhibition to tell you or inform you or just provide a narrative you could disagree with, but this does none of that. Instead of insight, we get this over-riding vision of Bjork as a pixie oddity from a far and distant exotic land. The exhibition says zilch about Bjork’s process as an artist. We hear nothing about she works with or chooses directors, combines music with images or chooses samples from Icelandic lore. The art is fascinating but surely the context behind the content is just as intriguing?
So you leave MoMA $25 poorer and as uninformed about Bjork’s art and her motivations as you did when you went in. There’s no doubting the power of her work – and the passion she has for her work – but this exhibition does very little to capture this magic. A different curator would, of course, have taken a different steer and, like the largely hands-off approach the subject took to David Bowie Is, we’d have got a very clear and distinct snapshot of an intriguing artist. Here, by mollycoddlying and pandering to the artist and allowing her to curate 20 years of art and drama into five rooms without the help or translation of an outside voice, we’re left with a disconnect.
We still respect and are thrilled by Bjork the artist, but we’re just none the wiser about how she transforms her feelings and emotions into that dazzling work. The museum got what they wanted out of this – lots of coverage and loads of money as they were seduced by commerce and celebrity – but they’ve done themselves no favour in terms of how they cover pop culture. Time for the arts world to retake the “curator” term for themselves.