Bjork's MoMA Retrospective Is Gnarled, Problematic—and Compelling

bjork black lake
Bjork in the film "Black Lake." Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian

The polarizing, prolific Icelandic performer and avant-garde fashion icon Björk defies definitions, categories and interpretations. Any attempt to compartmentalize the former Sugarcubes singer's work—which spans visual art, musical innovations, challenging performances and dozens of collaborations spanning the likes of Lars von Trier and Tricky—would fail to fully grasp the breadth of her 30-plus-year (and still flourishing) career.

There is far too much whimsy and wonder and innovation to contain in a concert hall or museum space. So why is New York's Museum of Modern Art opening a "mid-career" retrospective this week on the iconoclastic artist? Displaying Björk's work is a bold statement, a push on MoMA's part toward more experimental approaches to the museum experience and discovering avenues to weave in the increasingly interconnected spheres of identity, music and technology—something that Björk herself has been concerned with historically, from her space-age performance style to the state-of-the-art iPad app that came in conjunction with her second-to-last album, 2011's Biophilia.

Oh, but the critics are dripping with disdain over the exhibit. New York Magazine has disparaged the MoMA retrospective a "disaster." It's "bad, really bad," according to Art News. "Fairyland meets the Hard Rock Cafe in this exhibition," declared The Guardian. The New York Times ripped it apart. And the list goes on.

Honestly, the Björk exhibit does have some serious problems (and snubs), but it is still ultimately alluring, and prompted fascinating conversations about artistry, curation and sound's relationship with vision. I would not call myself a Björk fan—I am more of an admirer—but try to avoid being dazzled, diehards, by the stunning costumes in the exhibit, from the Air Mail suit she donned for the cover of her 1995 album Post to the voluminous bell-shaped dress she donned for the song "Who Is It?" courtesy of the late couture genius Alexander McQueen.

To many, Björk is mystifyingly inaccessible. So how to contend with this in a very public museum in midtown Manhattan?

On Tuesday, I attended a press preview of the exhibit along with hundreds of other journalists. We were ushered into lines, so we could see the timed Songlines portion of the exhibit, on the museum's third floor. Everyone is handed an iPod with a programmed audio recording that moves with you through the winding exhibit, featuring dozens of Björk's notebooks, costumes and strange mannequins.

Her notebooks in particular have ruffled some feathers, at least in the social media sphere. I was taken with how gripping the inscriptions were—of course, it feels voyeuristic to read them—especially because I couldn't discern whether they were the fledglings of songs or just notes she jotted to herself during moments of clarity. "I like this resonance," she writes in one. "It elevates me. I don't recognize myself—this is very interesting."

The audio part of the exhibition was problematic, to say the least. A twinkly voice tells the story of a girl in fairy-tale-esque tones—presumably, it's about Björk, but it's difficult to concentrate on the highly involved audio recording while admiring a dazzling selection of pages and assorted pieces from her career. Each room is intended to be an era in her extensive catalogue, with an emphasis her transformative approach, but the rooms weren't marked in a way to best coincide with what I was supposed to be listening to. I ended up wandering at my own speed, confusingly reaching the finish before the audio recording was supposed to trail off.

Next, I descended a floor to a soundproof room in which Black Lake, a short film that MoMA commissioned with Björk, is screening. It's a visceral depiction of a woman whose black heart is a cave both literally (it was filmed in an Icelandic volcanic cave last summer) and figuratively. I went through it once, and then was immediately whisked back inside—Björk was on the premises.

It was strange, though, when Björk appeared momentarily to introduce the film. Clad in a black and white cactus hat that covered her entire face, she took the microphone and whispered: "I'm very grateful that [MoMA curator] Klaus [Biesenbach] convinced me to do this exhibition. It's been quite a journey." He convinced her to do it? The room buzzed with suspicions. Björk is an artist who has maintained tight control over her legacy and work, and I firmly believe that she wouldn't go forward with a project that was going to be misrepresentative of her.

In their reviews, several critics have been comparing the Björk retrospective to the (so I hear) sensational David Bowie Is exhibit. But here's the rub: Bowie had nothing to do with that exhibit, while Björk was involved with every step of this process. "She must have worked with every department of this museum," said Biesenbach during a press conference at a preview of the exhibit last week.

The final part of the exhibition lies in the lobby, where a portion of her musical instruments are laid out for all to see. Most impressively, there was a Tesla Coil.

The exhibit's technical kinks are quite evident, and the lines of visitors will be long in order to keep the space feeling intimate enough for contemplation while others are milling around. But I have to admire MoMA's effort here. What is an exhibit but a celebration, a place to contemplate work that's often divisive and difficult to understand and visually magnetic? If this doesn't describe Björk's work, I don't know what does. I can think of few other spaces that would dedicate three floors to honoring a woman who's shifted the conventions of how women are "supposed" to act as pop stars—or as feminists.

There is always going to be disagreement in how one can possibly expect to holistically represent an artist as imaginative, unpredictable and disruptive as Bjork. Perhaps it's more telling, though, that the compelling part of this conversation is about artist involvement in museum exhibitions, what deems an artist worthy of one, and whether encasing an auditory work is effective.

The question is: Should you go see the Björk retrospective? It depends on what you hope to get out of it. If you're searching for answers, you won't find any. However, if you're keen on being intrigued by someone whose brain vibrates at a completely different frequency, you'll probably draw something intriguing from the experience.

As far as momentary distractions from this unending winter go, I'll take it.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified MoMA. It has now been amended to reflect that MoMA stands for the Museum of Modern Art.