Creative Review

Björk and Jesse Kanda on the album art for Utopia

Björk and visual artist Jesse Kanda talk us through the making of the striking cover art for Utopia

The cover for Björk’s latest album is both gorgeous and frightening. It’s the kind of image that leaps out at you from a screen and remains etched on your brain. The Icelandic artist resembles some kind of otherworldly goddess with an elaborate silicone mask, blowholes in her throat and a flute in one hand. There’s a softness to it – from the newborn bird resting by her collarbone to the pale peach background – but there’s also something darker and a little disturbing.

The artwork is the result of a close collaboration between Björk, visual artist Jesse Kanda, James Merry and Hungry – a Berlin-based drag queen and makeup artist who creates twisted and beautiful looks using glitter, petals and pearls.

Kanda is a close friend of Björk’s – he created a weird and wonderful music video filmed inside the Icelandic artist’s mouth for song Mouth Mantra last year and has also created music videos and album for FKA twigs and Arca.

The cover art is supported by some stunning promo images and the video for song Blissing Me (directed by Tim Walker and Emma Dalzell) featured a similar aesthetic. We talk to Kanda and Bjork about the inspiration for the cover art and how it was created…

CR : How does the cover relate to the album ? You’ve said that Utopia is about a search for love whereas [previous album] Vulnicura was about the breakdown of a relationship – what bearing did this have on the artwork ?

Björk : Me and James Merry started talking about it a year or so ago and I was talking about how it was kinda sci-fi – arriving on an island after some sort of apocalypse and starting anew. So like an optimistic moist rainforest mood. There would be some sort of mutation, like birds that become flutes that become synths that become human. And somehow – as in all beginnings – somehow erotically charged but not in the traditional sense : more in the energy. I wanted it to be peach and light seagreen and somehow try to capture that magic of sunrises and sunsets. It needed to have some sort of warped twist. Like the borderline aggressive optimist.

Jesse Kanda : For me it was about creating a portrait that encapsulated what I felt the album represented. And “felt” is really the key word – it’s a balance of soft, hard, strong, fragile, generous, selfish, happy, sad, beautiful, ugly, alive and dead. I absorbed the music, but just as influential was our friendship. We’re best friends (Arca, James Merry, Björk and I) so we live it all together and individually. I digested all of that experience. I’m especially proud that I see all of these different elements balancing and alive in the finished image. I feel it’s different every time I look at it, and even as I’m looking at it it shape shifts. Like a mirror.

CR : Was the cover image shot in camera ? How much was created in post and using CGI ?

Jesse : James Merry did the face piece and Hungry did the make up and pearls. Björk and Raphael Salley did the hair. All of that was shot in camera. I also took pictures of insects and mouse corpses turned inside out (that’s her dress). Then I gathered all those photos, panicked for a couple days and pieced it all together, painted it etc. So kind of a collage. There were definitely moments of total terror because of the responsibility. But pure bliss as well.

CR : Could you talk me through the process of creating the cover art ? How you got from those initial ideas to the final image ? Did the idea go through many iterations ?

Björk : I think first was the conversation between me and James Merry and me saying I wanted to reveal my face but have some sort of orchid or floral shapes. James in the space of couple of days went and bought silicone and casts and in a hotel room taught himself from YouTube how to make casts and silicone pieces ! So he made the forehead piece.

The hair was a shape I craved, kinda like my braids I’ve worn since i was a teenager on steroids. It took a few goes to get it right with several people. I kinda wanted racoontails but shaven in the back. We had already worked with Hungry on the makeup but it was probably [our] communal idea – guided by Jesse – to tone it down and make it more graphic and less detailed.

Jesse then took the photo and digitally treated it a lot. [He] changed all proportion and surfaces and made the shoulders. I felt it needed something on the neck and suggested a newborn bird to strengthen the matriarch fertility angle and James suggested blowholes on the neck to encourage the air theme which goes sonically through the whole album. I wanted to have a flute on the cover but Jesse altered it dramatically and positioned it.

CR : So it was a very collaborative process between the four of you ?

Björk : Extremely collaborative. Me, Jesse, James and Alejandro have spent a lot of time together last few years in Iceland, Dominican Republic and all over and I feel this image and our collaborative work is truly grown from that. It has a core of true friendship and to be honest sometimes [it’s] difficult to know where one idea begins and another ends.

CR : You seem to have developed a great working relationship. Why do you think it works so well and what do you enjoy about working together ?

Jesse : She’s just a beautiful human that I’m happy to call my friend. And like in all my friendships, there’s a forever changing dynamic of mutual respect, love, caring … sharing pain and joy ! Comfort to be ourselves and just fun to be around each other. Making stuff together is kind of an awesome bonus.

Björk : I think mostly I’m just thrilled I got to know him. His integrity and self-sufficience is incredibly inspiring. Emotionally so lush and vibrant and a true radical at heart. It has been a privilege to witness him grow !!

Rachael Steven

publié dans Creative Review - 24.11.2017

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