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I arrive at MoMA‘s “Björk” press preview a little before 10:30–an hour and a half after the preview began–because tickets are timed. I’m immediately ushered to line First Names A-J, where I stand for the next 10 minutes. While I wait I overhear a pair of new cronies converse about where they’ve seen each other before: turns out they’re both from the San Francisco Bay Area! PR for Silicon Valley tech companies! “What the hell is PR from Autodesk doing here?” I wonder.
The mysteries and mobs continue as I make my way up to the third floor, where the “Songlines” portion of the exhibition is held. There are people everywhere, and no directions, so I stand in a fake line for another five minutes before realizing that it doesn’t actually lead anywhere. I walk over to another cluster of people and show my ticket for another line that snakes around and is full up. I wait here for another 15 minutes. To occupy myself, I look at the walls, which have about 10 screens playing footage of Björk’s live performances, placed above blown-up pieces of sheet music intermittently plastered like wallpaper. The sound for the videos isn’t consistent, and seems to jump from one to the next, so that you have to be looking at the right screen for the sound to sync up with the visual. There’s no wall text, so I don’t know where or when these performances took place.
I eventually reach the beginning of the line, where I’m handed a headset and told that what I’m about to experience will last approximately 40 minutes, that I should take my time, and that the headset will provide a brief introduction and musical accompaniment that I can activate by pressing start. The introduction is vague, and the only memorable token from it is a reiteration of the fact that I should take my time.
Puzzled but not yet peeved, I enter the space, which is a narrow, dimly-lit corridor formed by black curtains on either side. There’s nothing visual yet, but the music starts blaring from my headset. It’s ambient and abstract, with a narrator (is it Björk?) whispering nonlinear lyrics over the top. Ironically, the music is the reason I’m supposed to take my time: it changes as you move from one gallery to the next, and each section lasts a certain amount of time. It takes a few galleries to grasp this, at which point I assume it’s specially commissioned for the show, but I can’t say for sure. There’s still no wall text.
Taking my time proves impossible and tedious given the amount of people in the space, and the lack of sufficient visuals to accompany the duration of the music. The overall experience is distracted. There’s a case at the end of the first hallway with notes and lyrics scrawled in notebooks, which I attempt to read, but can’t because the audio in my headphones competes and wins. I continue on, and the curtains fall away to reveal Björk’s 1993 music video for Big Time Sensuality, projected onto the wall of the atrium. In the next room, the music changes, and there are more notebooks, plus a pair of red leather Hyperballad boots across from Michel Gondry’s Hyperballad wall, which is a changing outline of a city skyline made up of pulsing LED lights.
Farther on, the music changes again, although subtly. There’s a mannequin of Björk that’s mounted side-ways on the wall so that she faces into the gallery, her face peaking out from a puffy, white down jacket. To her right, behind glass, sit two robots. Remnants from a 1999 music video, I’m not sure which.
In another gallery, the singer’s swan dress from the 2001 Oscars makes an appearance. It’s iconic to be sure, but why it’s included here is unexplained. Then there’s Alexander McQueen’s bell dress, which is sculptural and stunning, but falls flat without the ringing of its form. These are both on more Björk-faced mannequins.
Farther still, the music breaks into a more percussive piece. The walls of the gallery become a pastoral, northern European landscape, and more Björk mannequins wear rainbow crocheted suits that look like the lovechild of rave girls’ attire and Nick Cave sound suits. Like the notebooks at the beginning, the music and objects compete for my attention, and ultimately, I can give it fully to neither. It’s a whirlwind of color, texture and noise.
The next room is so packed I don’t bother to stay; it’s dark and I can’t see the dress everyone is crowding around anyway. But when I head to the next room, I’m startled to discover that I’ve been spit back out into the lobby of the third floor. That was it. I’d spent no more than 20 minutes in Songlines when I was told it should take twice that.
Downstairs, on the second floor, I get in line and wait for what we’re told is called “Black Lake.” I assume it’s a video installation, which I’m hoping will have seats. 20 minutes later, around 50 of us are herded into a near pitch-black, large room with screens on two opposite walls. There aren’t any seats. Everyone shuffles in, and then, from the back of the still dark room comes the faint, German accent of curator Klaus Biesenbach. I spin around, and can barely make out his silhouette beyond the crowd in the dark, along with another inhuman silhouette that looks more like a cactus than a person. Someone from behind me yells, “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Klaus speaks up and introduces the cactus, which is actually Björk. She thanks everyone, and they leave as suddenly as they appeared.
Then, just as abruptly, the screens light up, and the music starts. It’s a new music video for the song Black Lake off her newest album Vulnicura (released last month). The walls are covered in barnacle-like acoustic padding, and the sound surrounds us from all sides. The video is projected on both screens, so that I spend the length of the video flipping my head back and forth to see both. It shows Björk, wearing a silvery mini dress, walking dramatically through black rocky terrain, and then in a mossy field wearing a wonderful, wispy vest that flutters like feathers as she moves. The music is rich, and the visual is stunning, but I can’t help but feel that I could have an equal, or perhaps better, viewing experience in the comfort of my room, wearing headphones, and watching it on my laptop. Because, ultimately, this is a music video, and having grown up with YouTube, I’m not impressed.
It ends and we’re released into the open again. I go through a poorly marked door to another space where large, red foam blocks make seats for a running loop of eight of Björk’s music videos (all of which you can watch on her YouTube channel). I don’t even stay through the end of one. By this point I’m fried, bored, and disappointed.