The Life Aquatic

The Independent, 17 juillet 2005

When Björk started going out with the American artist Matthew Barney, they solemnly vowed never to work together. So why have they just collaborated on Barney’s new film ? And why is Björk all soggy ? James McNair met the greatest living Icelander to talk about the sea, Hiroshima, movies and the abiding guilt of the white American male...

A posh hotel in central London. In a quiet ground floor room prettified by an expanse of stained glass, Björk’s manager Scott is parked on a chaise longue. He is booting-up his Powerbook. He is about to grant me a sneak preview of a film shot in Nagasaki Bay, Japan, aboard the whaling vessel Nisshin Maru. Costing around £6m to make, and filmed so beautifully that random pauses generate stunning stills, Drawing Restraint 9 is the work of Matthew Barney, the American multimedia artist who also happens to be Björk’s husband. Barney is also the father of Björk’s two-year-old daughter, Isadora.

We don’t have much time, so we mouse-click through various scenes : Björk and Barney dressed in mammal furs and apparently engaged in an intimate courtship ritual ; lush footage of the Japanese pearl-diving girls know as amas ; Björk and Barney in a “magic-realist” sequence in which they cut away each other’s limbs with flensing knives, their bodies now seen to have the beginnings of whale tails.

Strange ? You bet. But then the first creative collaboration between Björk and her enfant terrible husband was never going to be humdrum. After all, Barney is the man whose Cremaster Cycle sequence of films took its name from the muscle that determines the height of a man’s testicles—which did not stand in the way of the work becoming the subject of a recent acclaimed retrospective at Guggenheim New York.

Movie preview over, I’m escorted up to Björk’s hotel suite. She is wearing a floor-length blue silk dress by Vivienne Westwood, and hums softly to herself as I fiddle with my recording machine. She seems much younger than her 39 years, partly because of her habit of pulling child-like, almost feral facial expressions. “I must be the only person in London with woollen shoes on,” she smiles, mindful that it’s 30C outside. With that, she takes off a pump/stiletto hybrid and holds it up for us to admire. It is indeed decorated with grey and yellow wool.

Björk has written the soundtrack album for Drawing Restraint 9, in addition to acting in the film. According to the press release, the core theme of the film is “the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity”. But whatever themes it explores—and whaling culture, the value of ritual and the possibility of physical/artistic rebirth figure, too—it certainly isn’t the kind of plot-driven flick you might rent at your local Blockbuster.

“There’s very little dialogue in the film,” says Björk, twitching her nose. “You could speak to five different people and get five different interpretations. Matthew is first and last a sculptor. He invents his own mythology and looks at his movies as a way to tell the story of why his sculptures got made. It’s not something I would say, particularly, but some people compare his films to stuff like Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. You just have to enjoy Matthew’s films ; it’s not, ‘Oh, what happens next ?’

In the opening scene of Drawing Restraint 9, we see an elegant Japanese woman engaged in a present- wrapping ritual. The accompanying music is “Gratitude”, a gorgeous new Björk composition featuring the recessive American songwriter Will Oldham and harpist Zeena Parkins.

The song’s lyrics derive from real letters sent by Japanese citizens to America’s General Douglas MacArthur in 1946, thanking him for lifting a ban on Japanese whaling around the Antarctic. This seems a remarkably magnanimous act on the part of the letter writers given that the US bombing of Hiroshima was still fresh in their collective memory. As Oldham sings, we intuit that the gift being wrapped on-screen—a prehistoric fossil relative of the modern krill “that feeds the noble whale”—is for MacArthur. Drawing Restraint 9, it seems fair to say, is Matthew Barney’s gift back to the Japanese.

“Using the letters was Matthew’s idea,” says Björk. “He was commissioned to make the film by the Kanazawa Museum Of Contemporary Art, and it’s been interesting for me as an Icelandic person to see how he’s dealt with that. Iceland doesn’t have any guilt baggage because we didn’t treat any country awfully during the Second World War. But for Matthew, a man who was born in San Francisco in 1967—when he thinks of Japan the first thing that comes to mind is Hiroshima. It’s made me realise how complicated it is to be an intelligent white American male these days.

“That was one of the reasons I asked Will Oldham to sing ‘Gratitude’,” she goes on. “He and Matthew have that shared history. They sort of accept the guilt and sort of don’t, because there’s part of them that respects old-school American values from before the world wars and 9/11 and everything. They don’t want to associate themselves with a lot of American stuff, but are forced to in a way. I thought getting an American to sing the song rather than a Japanese person gave it more power. I mean, why on earth would the Japanese thank MacArthur when the US had just bombed them ?”

Drawing Restraint 9 is not Björk’s first soundtrack, of course. She wrote SelmaSongs, the score for Lars von Trier’s troubling, some claim misogynous, musical Dancer in the Dark in 2000, music composed even as she rehearsed the film’s lead role. But while making her big screen debut as near-blind Czech immigrant Selma famously drained Björk and left her unsure about further acting—“Lars has a way of throwing petrol on your soul,” she said last year ; playing alongside her husband, she says, was “inevitable”. Nevertheless, one fan website has already cited her project with Barney as worrying proof that “she’s going a bit Yoko Ono.” Did she and her husband have any misgivings about collaboration ?

“I guess we had some worries,” she offers when pressed. “When we first met one of the first things we said to each other was, ‘Let’s never work together.’ We just wanted that boyfriend/girlfriend thing ; that was the priority. But in the end it was easier to do a project together than not. We were going to the same places, meeting the same people, and listening to the same music. In a funny way, the soundtrack and screenplay for this movie is based on those shared experiences, but knowing Matthew I’m sure there are 20 other layers of meaning I’m not aware of.”

Aboard the Nisshin Maru for up to five days at a time, they breakfasted on whale sushi having slept in spartan cabins alongside Japanese sailors (whom Björk found reassuringly macho)—a challenge for Barney, given that he was initially susceptible to seasickness. Eventually finding his sea-legs, the artist sculpted a life-sized whale figure from Vaseline. “It coagulated on the deck, and he got the whalers to cut it up as though it was a real whale,” says his wife. This ritual flensing naturally found its way into the film.

The time spent at sea had a deep impact on Björk’s musical contribution too. “Pearl” begins with the sound of the pearl-diving girls hyper-ventilating ; the strident brass arrangement on “Hunter Vessel” was inspired by ship sounds in her native Iceland. “I live near the harbour in Reykjavík, and ships are being repaired all the time outside my window,” she says. “I’ve expressed to Matthew many times that I’m obsessed with ships, and I thought it would be great to make some kind of ship symphony.” Perhaps the sea itself has become an obsession for Björk. “Well, it’s a big subject,” she smiles. “Two-thirds of the world is ocean. Matthew and I are actually thinking about selling one of our houses in New York to buy a boat. It could be our home and our studio and we could travel around and drop the anchor wherever we found inspiration. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before.”

Another reason why living on a boat might appeal to Björk and Barney is that it would grant them more of the privacy they guard so zealously. For all the flamboyancy of their respective creations, they have successfully managed to shield their relationship from prying lenses. But then, ever since Björk clobbered a journalist for invading her son Sindri’s space at Bangkok airport, Heat magazine and the like have tended to keep their distance.

Even now, there are moments when her defences are primed. When I ask Björk if Barney was pleased with her soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, her guard comes up immediately. She chooses her words carefully. “I haven’t asked him straight out like that,” she says slowly, “but I think I would have known along the way if he wasn’t happy with it. He says, ‘Give me some aggressive shit,’ and I say, ‘Okay, I get it.’ I go to my studio, he leaves me to it, I bring the music to him and it’s spot on. That only happens when you know a person really well.”
And what of the weird cover image on the Drawing Restraint 9 CD ? It’s a still from the film, and features a strange hybrid figure, a cross between a clown, a fireman, and a lab worker. It’s not easy to explain why, but it’s an unsettling image.

“Oh, he sort of plays the prankster role,” says Björk. “We have this guy in Icelandic mythology called Loki, and he’s a bit like that. He’s the wild card ; the character who fucks things up. The equivalent in the Tarot deck would be The Magician, I suppose.” Whatever their eccentricities (it is, let’s face it, hard to imagine Björk and Barney watching EastEnders over a cuppa), the pair share a fierce work ethic and a passion for pushing the artistic envelope. Björk estimates Barney and his small team of technicians shot Drawing Restraint 9 in less than seven weeks, while she wrote and recorded the soundtrack in six months, her quickest solo album turn-around to date. “There was a lot of not sleeping happening,” she observes.

The couple also took care to ensure their project paid homage to Japanese culture without being either patronising or simplistic. Spending the whole of last November in the country, they travelled to five different cities in the South, then on to Yakushima, a rainforest and waterfall-rich island 135km south of Kagoshima City, Kyushu. Björk had been keen to visit Yakushima since learning it was the setting for Princess Mononoke, a technically astounding animation by the Ghibli Studio, sometimes referred to in the West as “the Disney of the East”.
Björk wore a kimono for the cover of 1997’s Homogenic, conspicuously flagging up her interest in Japan and its culture, but her fascination with the country began in adolescence. She says that, as a teenager, she was obsessed with the place. She would eat sushi by the boatload, pore over books on Zen Buddhism, and read novels by Yukio Mishima, whose The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea would have an obvious allure for the singer.

“At one point I even applied to study at a Japanese animation school,” she adds. “I was going to go, too, but then I joined some band.” (That band was Tappi Tíkarrass, whose name translates from the Icelandic as “cork the bitch’s arse”. Björk was 17 at the time, the precocious, self-titled album she’d recorded as a child already six years in her rear-view. By the time she began co-fronting The Sugarcubes aged 21, her musical career was in its second decade.)

Her artistic vision remains stringent. While writing the score for Drawing Restraint 9 she consulted a virtuoso sho player, to try to get her head round this traditional reed instrument and its many quirks. The sho is properly made from bamboo blackened above a fireplace, and is built to loosely resemble a phoenix, the mythical bird and the instrument both having an association with fire.

“It’s a very peculiar instrument, because it only has 15 notes,” explains the composer. “It’s very tricky to play, and for purely aesthetic reasons, it’s shaped a bit like your hands if you put them like this [makes praying gesture]. It fits in with the ‘restraint’ theme of the album title very nicely, actually.

“After I met [the sho virtuoso] Mayumi, I had about two months to write for her. So it was a lot of research, a lot of Google.” Did she have a go on the sho herself ? “Well, I asked Mayumi, but she looked at me like, are you kidding ? There is no fucking way you are gonna be able to play this. Full respect, though : it’s very personal and part of a unique tradition.”

For the record, how does she go about scoring for sho, harp and brass, instruments she doesn’t actually play ? “I use a computer program called Sibelius which notates things for you,” she explains. “You have a virtual sheet of manuscript paper and you write the music in using the mouse. Sibelius is great because it has loads of different instrument sounds and you can work with just your laptop and headphones. You write a line, press play, and you can hear it immediately. You don’t have to be Mozart, storing it all up in your head.”

Does she have a favourite film music composer ?

“What I most admire is when the film and the score are seamless, and one plus one makes five. Alfred Hitchcock’s stuff with Bernard Herrmann is a good example. Although I’m not fan of Hitchcock or thrillers particularly, the relationship between the music and the visuals in The Ghost and Mrs Muir is almost perfect. You can’t imagine one without the other. It’s the same with Stanley Kubrick. He had a really sensitive, deep understanding of using music in film, even although a lot of the music he used wasn’t composed specifically for him. Something like 2001 : A Space Odyssey is a good example, but just generally speaking, it’s the music that drives his films forward.”

And then, alas, Scott calls time on the interview. Björk smiles and we shake hands. Next up, she says, is a round-table session with several journalists from Japan. Passing them on the way out, I notice two of them are carrying beautifully wrapped presents.

publié dans The Independent