The invention of reinvention

Juxtapoz, 16 mars 2015

Very few artists garner an immediate identity when you simply utter their name, or create such an interesting paradox. April 2015 cover artist Björk is both a major pop star and art pioneer, a balancing act of defining the future while bringing millions of fans along with her. It comes as no surprise that on March 6, 2015, MoMA will open a retrospective of the Icelandic-born artist, focusing on not only her identity as a visual artist, but the power of her music. We spoke with both MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach and director and collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang about the genesis of the Björk exhibition, the art involved, and the special projects that MoMA visitors can expect.

Klaus Biesenbach is Chief Curator-at-Large of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and he played an essential role in transforming Björk’s career into a museum experience. A partial interview with Klaus was featured in the April 2015 issue of Juxtapoz. Here now, in full, is our conversation with Klaus.

Evan Pricco : What’s really interesting about this show in particular, especially since I’ve been talking to people in the art world about it so much, is that a lot of us, if not all of us, agree that Björk deserves a MoMA exhibition with no questions asked. She is an icon. But to the casual visitor to MoMA, or someone with more of an overarching pop-culture sensibility, the curation of a Björk retrospective may come across as a bit of a surprise. As a curator, how do you come to the consensus that Björk should get an exhibition—how, in your mind is she worthy of an art exhibition that goes beyond her music and her pop figure status ?

Klaus Biesenbach : She’s one of the most inspiring, innovative, creative minds of my generation. She has influenced and inspired generations, several now, and has provided images and a persona that is influential. Not necessarily images that fit into a frame or onto a pedestal. She is one of the most influential, creative exhibitioners alive right now.

I totally agree and for you, Do you have a memory of first being introduced to her work, whether musically, visually, or music videos ?

I have three very strong memories. One strong memory is just watching music TV and being fascinated. But that’s how everybody had their first impressions of her music. There was just this fascination.

Second, I founded an art institution in Berlin and where we built and ran a sculpture café that had a very good sound system and I remember at an opening there was music in the background. And I never liked music in the background of exhibitions, and all of a sudden I realized it was Björk’s music, and how in that big crowd there was, all of a sudden, an intimate encounter with another person who also was in the room. I think that is what most people have, it’s as if she’s too close to the microphone and somehow she gets through the ether, the Internet into your very, very close surroundings. It’s a little bit as if you were touched by her. So I remember just the regular TV thing but I remember that one moment—this thought of “Who is that, who is that voice ?”

The third encounter I had with Björk was when a friend of mine took me to the movie theater and he said to me, “Oh, some friend from out of town is going to tag along.” My friend was a running a little late, and then this mystery guest arrives early and says, “You must be Klaus,” and I was like, ok, you look like Björk. And of course it was her, and we ended up knowing each other for years afterward.

I have these three memories of how she came into my life. First music video, then acoustically, and then as a person.

The evolution that she’s gone through is so vivid to anyone who has followed her musically and otherwise. What I think is interesting is that the music itself has always been dramatic and visual in its composition, but she’s also brought her own visuals to accompany the music. And I’m curious for you, when you’re putting together a show like this, what is the experience going to be for the visitor to get inside this career ? Whether it be the way she presents herself at concerts, showing her music videos, playing the actual music—how will the experience be at the museum ?

It will be the experience of music. When you walk into the exhibition, I think that it is important you have an immersive sound environment first. We want your body to resonate with the sound. We have these incredible speakers behind the projection surface so the sound is behind the images, almost like going through the image, and physically resonates in your body as a vibration.

Then we have a large-scale movie theater that shows a retrospective of all her collaborations, like with Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, or Chris Cunningham. The exhibition will also have a very intimate experience with the music, listening to her, hearing her, and walking through her life. There’s also going to be stage attire, for instance the Alexander McQueen bell dress, that you can see on an intimate level.

Juxtapoz readers are familiar with the headdresses that Maiko Takeda has done for her. Will those be on display as well ?

Yes, they will !

As you built this show, as you’ve been working with Björk closely, has anything surprised you ?

Well, what I normally do is go to an artist and see the work, and I’m going edit it, I’m going to put it together around a period of time or theme, and that will be my emphasis and it’s going to be the show. With Björk, the first time I asked her if she wanted to do a show with me was in 2000, fifteen years ago. And we are friends, so I always go to everything she does. And I remember I went to an launch for the 2011 album Biophilia, and it was accompanied by a small exhibition. I said to her, “Hey I’ve been asking you for twelve years to do an exhibition with me and here you’re doing one by yourself ! Now there’s no escape anymore !”

She thought about it some more and got back to me later in 2012 and said, "If you make an exhibition that is about the experience of my sound and music, then I’ll do it." Normally I know very well what I’m going to do, but with her it was different because she has such a clear vision of what is ahead of us. And I mean that as in the future of sound, visuals, or performance. It’s very interesting because my premise of the exhibition was a little bit grammatical : “I’m making a retrospective of where you will have arrived in 2015.” So she was just in midst of Biophilia, and in three years, I could give her the dates and we could plan very diligently. And I said, “Björk it’s going to be a retrospective looking back from March 2015 looking back from where you will have arrived.”

I think the new album, Vulnicura, really triggered this idea of a future retrospective, an exhibition looking forewards and not backwards. She has always had this really clear vision with her work, and then she has this amazing ability to have other people realize her vision. She is a visionary convincing clarity, who takes art in a direction that nobody yet knows.

That’s a really great way of putting it. Even with the app experience that she had with Biophilia, or the fact that she’s been in films like Dancer In The Dark and all these immersive music videos, she has been a visionary. I think it’s simply put that she is ahead of her time. But she has done it in a way that doesn’t leave out a pop-culture following. What’s amazing about her career is that she has been both canonized by pop-culture but with a simultaneous cult-like high art appreciation.

Which is so surprising because she’s so precise in what she does but still she has this huge fan base. I have done three music shows at MoMA now. One was with Antony and the Johnsons and the other with Kraftwerk, and now the third one now is Björk. So I think that there are these very rare artists who can be precise and uncompromising as they need to be, but still they have a huge fan base. It’s actually surprising.

She was very involved in this exhibition, right ? Is that rare ?

Oh yeah, she was absolutely involved. I wouldn’t say it’s rare, because the artists I work with are always very involved in the exhibition. But what is rare is that you are working on something that doesn’t exist yet. When you do a sculpture exhibition, you take fifteen sculptures and you place them, and you work on the catalogue, and then you work on the exhibition design. But here, we were developing something where the last chapter wasn’t written and the whole exhibition was developed through this process that, as I said, is very rare. When we commissioned the video for “Black Lake,” which is on the new album and will be a special premier at the exhibition, it was unique because we were building around a centerpiece that hadn’t happened yet.

I’ve been listening to Vulnicura the last couple weeks, especially leading up to this magazine article. And the album is very personal, obviously, which goes without saying. How aware were you of the making of the album as this exhibition plan was going along ? Was the goal for everyone to have the album come out with the show, or was that a coincidence ?

She is such a strong artist, you’re just trying to not lose track with her. I was hoping it would all align, but she’s like a storm. You don’t presume you can change her course.

One of the greatest contributions that Björk has made to music and visual culture are her endless experimentations in the music video medium. Working with visionaries like Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, and Andrew Thomas Huang, Björk has continued to redefine how a musician expresses themselves. Here are a selection of our favorite images that span her career.

Andrew Thomas Huang is no stranger to Björk’s career. Not only did he direct the amazing video for “Mutual Core,” off the 2011 album, Biophilia, Huang is the collaborator behind Black Lake, a new sound and video installation commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art especially for the Björk exhibition. We spoke to Huang a few weeks before the MoMA opening to get his insights on an artistic visionary.

You have worked with some really forward-thinking musicians who I almost consider to be visual artists (Thom Yorke, for example), but Björk just stands out as this pioneering figure. What were your impressions of her before you got a chance to work with her ? And since, how has it evolved now that you are playing an integral part in her museum retrospective ?

Working with Björk has been an incredible experience. She is such a mutual collaborator and it has been a journey finding this new character for Vulnicara and trying to visually represent her through a process of many conversations, iterations, and talking and hiking around her cabin in Thingvellir, Iceland.

I asked Klaus this, but how much of the new album were you aware of throughout the last few years, and how did "Black Lake" get selected to be the centerpiece ?

Björk played me some early demos at the end of 2013. When she played Black Lake for me, I immediately knew that it was a spatial song and felt right for an immersive spatial piece for the museum. I was also really struck by the visceral emotion of it. It felt like this song had to be the centerpiece of the MoMA exhibit.

Can you give us any insight about the project ?

It’s a film about a wounded woman who goes into nature to sing and, with her footsteps, weave her songs into the earth.

Klaus said this too, and I loved it, that Björk "is a visionary convincing clarity." He said that in relation to her being forward-thinking and not afraid to bring her massive audience on her new journeys. I had to listen to it a few times on my recorder, but it makes sense. What do you think ?

Björk is an incredibly brave visionary, and it has been a real learning experience observing how she follows her own emotional intuition as her compass.

publié dans Juxtapoz


  • Andrew Thomas Huang
  • Klaus Biesenbach