After 22 years, 36 music videos, eight albums, and one swan dress, the irrepressible creature known as Björk has finally been captured and put in a box for the general public to stare at. This Sunday, a retrospective on pop culture's favorite eccentric will open at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Over three floors, Björk's diaristic ephemera mingle with her costumes, props, music videos, instruments, and a museum-commissioned video installation. It took 12 years for Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA's PS1 and the its chief curator-at-large, to convince the Icelandic icon to participate in the show, and three more to assemble it. Given Björk's massive celebrity and the museum's appeal to tourists, long lines and fat margins are a given. But the blockbuster exhibition has already been widely panned by art critics, who've called it "another embarrassing pop-programming nadir," "weirdly unambitious," "[reeking] of ambivalence," and just "bad, really bad." The music world has been slightly less acerbic, but equally underwhelmed. What went wrong?
The exhibition's ambitions were muddled from the start. During a preview on Tuesday, Biesenbach told journalists that Björk is an artist who likes to look forward-not back. In order to get her on board, he framed the retrospective as a survey of her career from "three years in the future." Biesenbach failed to elaborate on how he went about this temporal hopscotch or what a future-retrospective even means. Nothing about the exhibition or its accompanying wall texts seem to follow this conceptual thrust.
More damning is the museum's inability to live up to Björk's own aspirations for what this could have been. Her goal, according to Biesenbach, was an art exhibition that makes sound--not visuals--its focus, rather than an afterthought. "First and foremost, I am a musician," she is said to have told him. "Can you make music a real experience the way you make painting a real experience?" Rather than rising to this challenge, MoMA decided to hand out Bluetooth-equipped headphones sponsored by Volkswagen. In theory, this could have been cool. In practice, it was hardly a step up from the standard audio guide.
You'll find those expensive headphones at Songlines, an audio-visual tour through Björk's seven full-length albums, and the show's central attraction. But first, you'll have to wait in an inevitable long line, watching clips of Björk's seminal concerts on the walls-the looping cacophony of her wailing emotions rising and falling with your anticipation. Finally, an attendant will hand you an iPhone-like device and headphones. Putting them on, you'll hear a man with a British accent entreating you to interact with these "musical movements" and "sonic landscapes." What that really means is that the device will track your location and cue a different soundtrack depending on which room you're in. That soundtrack revolves around a fictional biography written by the Icelandic poet Sjón and narrated by Björk herself, with snippets of her albums in the background. Volkswagen may use this technology for hands-free driving, but in the museum, it's supposed to help you experience the art and music without fiddling with the device in your hand. Instead, it completely distracts from the experience.
Songlines is filled with all kinds of rare Björkonica--the robots from the "All Is Full Of Love" video, intimate childhood photos, proto-Rookie Mag journals scribbled with her most intimate confessions, an eerie wax mannequin wearing that infamous swan dress. Critics have likened this cabinet of curiosities to Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café--a snooty diss that demeans these objects as mere celebrity worship, rather than engaging with them for what they are: sumptuous displays of creativity that transcend their pop culture context.
In one darkened chamber, a translucent mannequin of Björk draped in an Alexander McQueen wedding dress, clutching a music box designed by her ex-partner Matthew Barney, rotates slowly as if on a royal spit-a glorious spectacle of plastic, lace, pearls, and pierced nipples. If placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's McQueen retrospective in 2011, it would have been praised as a highlight. Here, it's summarily dismissed.
The problems lie not in the exhibition's content, but the show's inability to decide which kind of content--audio or visual--to privilege. In the room devoted to her 2007 album Volta, a monstrous yak head, vibrant yarn costumes, and an Easter egg-like body sculpture by Bernhard Willhelm demand attention. But the low horns of "Wanderlust" are blaring in your ears while in her spoken word performance Björk is trying to tell you something about a mother-girl, tribal fires and lava fields. Your attention is demanded everywhere, so it can focus nowhere. The effect is the exact opposite of what Björk purportedly wanted. Music is not the main star but the distracting tinsel on the wall.
Sound plays a more important role in "Black Lake," a ten-minute video that you watch in a dark, womb-like screening room soundproofed by 6,000 hand-stitched felt cones, each one mapped to a second of the song. The song sits at the center of Vulnicura, Björk's recent album topically about her breakup with the artist Matthew Barney. When she stands in a starkly lit Icelandic cave, beats her chest and sings "Black Lake's" most haunting line--"Family was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned"--her heartbreak gets under your skin in a way that headphones or speakers never could induce. The immersive sound technology doesn't distract, but rather magnifies, the quality that has endeared her to so many: her limitless emotions.
The vitriol thrown at this retrospective is ultimately part of a backlash that's bigger than Björk. Art critics are responding to what they regard as a terrifying trend: MoMA eroding its pedigree by pandering to populist tastes and holding its "true" audience in disdain. This doesn't really matters to the crowds who will swarm the show when it opens, nor should it. What does matter is that Björk is a tremendously complex musician, able to inhabit multitudes without contradiction, and she deserved a retrospective that reflected that. It's a shame that the museum (either by choice or limitations of space, technology or resources) couldn't go beyond the tried-and-tested audio-guide model when challenged to design an experience that makes music a centerpiece. That doesn't mean you should skip it. Because the exhibition still resonates with quintessential Björk-ness--a strong feeling of heart, blood, and meat.
Björk likes it too. During Tuesday's preview, before the avalanche of bad press, she appeared for a few seconds in a cactus costume. "It's been a generous and fruitful journey for me!" she chirped. Dozens of journalists swarmed towards her as soon as she finished her remarks, but within seconds she had already scurried out of the door, which closed softly in their faces.