All is full of Bjork. To the left she’s pogo-ing in clubland, her hair in bunches. To the right she’s performing at a concert hall, backed by a harpist and an Inuit choir. On a third screen she’s in daffodil yellow, skittering across the stage, propelled by little bursts of energy, her internal circuit breaker forever fused. Power surges overwhelm her, her face signals violently, cartoon-ish-ly happy and she gasps for air, in total out-of-control.
The walls are lined with sheet music, the notation in her own hand, a reminder that this woman who dislikes being called a composer is classically-trained, with a modernist bent, conversant in Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Cage since the age of six. It’s apparently not enough to have blown up the barrier between pop and fine art. We haven’t reached the front of the queue and the Museum of Modern Art is welcoming her into the academy.
At the door, we’re handed an iPod and some fancy Bowers & Wilkins headphones. “You’ve been given a heart, which rests on your chest,” says a soothing English voice. “Ensure that you experience this journey as fully as possible.”
When Bjork agreed to the retrospective, she asked herself “how do you hang a song on a wall?” Her answer is a fairy tale, written by her friend and sometime lyrical collaborator Sjon, that traces her life and career through seven albums, from the ingenue in mohair of Debut to Biophilia’s earth mother, via six sharp turns of musical direction.
Bjork named this part of the exhibition Songlines, in reference to the indigenous Australian belief system that maps the world in myth and melody. “I’ve been singing and walking outside since I was a child,” she says. “I lived on the edge of Reykjavik and I would walk a lot into the moss and the lava. I didn’t realise until I was grown up that the melodies are really attached to the places they were written.”
It’s best not to take this too literally. Songlines is also meant to connote that the music comes first and everything else – design, fashion, video and multimedia – is in service to it. The infamous swan dress that she wore to the Oscars is on display, as is the topless haute couture nightie from Pagan Poetry that she accessorised with pearls sown into her skin. Alexander McQueen’s gown made of bells is here too, but the immersive audio track, playing the hits and telling the story, emphasises that the songs define the aesthetic.
Putting on the retrospective has obliged Bjork to listen to her own albums, and sort through her memories of the collaborators, friends and lovers that animate them. Debut and Post were conceived in the clubs of Manchester, London and Bristol. Homogenic is “one big letter to Iceland,” written in Spanish exile. Medulla, her accapella record, was a response to the alienation she felt in New York following the September 11 attacks.
“Some songs are more about emotional location inside a relationship or a friendship. They don’t necessarily have geological co-ordinates,” she says. “Other songs may be more geological.” I think she means geographical, but she has been known to add or alter a syllable when it suits her. Plus, she once commissioned a video of tectonic plates making love. The earth’s crust is alive to her.
We meet on a frigid New York day. Outside it’s minus fifteen degrees and windy. “I think the river’s going to freeze,” she says. “That’s kind of exciting, actually.” From January to June, she lives in Brooklyn Heights, close to her daughter’s school. From July to December, she’s at her beach house on the outskirts of Reykjavik, surrounded by “the sort of old friends that you can’t get away with any bullshit.” At her knitting circle, she’s not made to feel famous at all.
In its inimitable Bjork-ness, her outfit does not disappoint. She’s wearing a long golden t-shirt under a white cotton dress with billowing shoulders that I can only describe as looking like the costume of a serving wench at a medieval country fair. Other than mascara, eyeliner and two-tone eye-shadow in pastel yellow and gold, her face is make-up free. Her pale skin looks less than forty-nine years old.
I soon realise why she doesn’t wear lipstick: it wouldn’t last three minutes. Her tongue is constantly on the move, poking out of her mouth and swiping side to side, like a gecko in search of a fly. Every now and again she smears her lips with the back of her hand or does a head wave reminiscent of Stevie Wonder at the keys. It’s bizarre to watch her, face to face across a table for half an hour. But she’s so nice, and unaffected, and such an interesting person to talk to that I find her subconscious show of mannerisms rather endearing.
Bjork’s facial tics, her spastic dancing and her unmistakable speaking voice, with its trilled Icelandic Rs and odd hints of cockney form the basis of a caricature that is almost as old as she is. Mad Bjork is the woman who punched a journalist in Bangkok Airport for asking the wrong question at the wrong time, the tormented actress who ate her shirt on the set of Dancer In The Dark, the singer who recorded a vocal in a cave full of bats because she liked the acoustic. It’s a loose-fitting outfit made from scraps of truth.
In 1996 an obsessed fan, Ricardo Lopez, posted her a bomb and then filmed his suicide. The tabloids had been hounding Bjork about her relationships with Tricky and Goldie, two stars of British dance music. When even the most positive articles in the music press were couched in terms of her eccentricities, she knew it was time to leave London.
“Everybody was trying to corner me off like some kind of elf, Icelandic Eskimo, all those stupid cliches, and I was like ‘I’m not gonna take any part of this,’” she says. She moved to a friend’s studio in Spain and threw her phone into the sea.
“I’ve been really stubborn for the last twenty years. I don’t do autographs, and I don’t partake in the game,” she says. Each helping of fame has tasted a little more sickly than the last. As an eleven-year-old, an album of Icelandic cover versions made her a minor celebrity. In her early twenties The Sugarcubes – a group with a healthy distrust of success – had a couple of hits by accident.
In-between, she was a member of an extreme art-punk group, Kukl. When she appeared on television, hair dyed orange and eyebrows shaved, in a crop top that showed off her pregnant belly, it generated a record number of complaints. Her son, Sindri, was born when she was twenty years old, and soon came out on tour – his father, Thor Eldon, played guitar in the Sugarcubes.
Kukl’s motto, borrowed from Pablo Picasso, was “taste is the enemy of creativeness.” After the band split, its members formed a collective called Smekkleysa, meaning Bad Taste. It’s telling that of all Bjork’s records, the one she has mixed feelings about is Debut, because Nellee Hooper’s production is a little too smooth. There’s no barrage of noise or fugue of foghorns to unsettle listeners and demand their attention.
MOMA’s Chief Curator Klaus Biesenbach had been nagging Bjork about a retrospective for a decade. “I thought it was a bit too narcissistic, and also I’ve been terrified that if you get stuck in the past, you can’t write new songs,” she says. It took her friend Antony Hegarty telling her “do it for the sound, do it for the women” to convince her, and even now she’s conflicted about it.
“It takes a lot of head space. Klaus kind of tricked me, in the end, to read all my diaries. I’d never read them, ever. I was maybe gonna do it when I was eighty in a rocking chair. So I just finished reading twenty years of my life, which was really interesting, but also really boring.”The books are on display behind glass, open at pages that advertise Bjork’s singular creative vision and offer glimpses of her inner life. One entry is written in Icelandic, bar the names Tricky and Goldie. Another suggests that “germs are cleverer than men.” There’s some teenage poetry, several musical sketches. Handwritten lyrics for Hyper-ballad and Unison, two albums apart, appear side by side.
The retrospective makes plain that Bjork is a peerless art director and visual innovator, with daring taste in co-conspirators, from film-makers Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham (does any artist have a better collection of video clips?) to photographer Nick Knight and designer Hussein Chayalan, who made the paper ‘airmail’ jacket on the cover of Post. As you stop to consider the images, Bjork’s voice is in your ears, roaring and bawling and cooing and whispering that this may be a history of collaborations but she’s in charge. “I am a musician,” she tells me in the interview, twice.
Bjork writes most of her own words and all her own melodies. She arranges the string and horn parts, and tinkers with beats for months each time she makes an album. But there’s always someone who helps her turn the songs into finished tracks. In the past, she’s referred to these men – Hooper, Graham Massey, Mark Bell, Matmos and Thomas Knak among many others – as “midwives,” rather than producers.
“There’s a different story with each one: sometimes I met them at a bar or at a dinner party, sometimes I heard them and emailed them immediately because I was so excited, and sometimes they contact me.” While making Post, Bjork became obsessed by a Milton Nascimento song called Travessia, tracked down string arranger Eumir Deodato in New Jersey and persuaded him to orchestrate Hyper-ballad and Isobel.
For her latest record, Vulnicura, Bjork worked with Alejandro Ghersi, AKA Arca, a Venezuelan beat-maker half her age. The “complete heartbreak album” describes splitting up with her long term partner, artist Matthew Barney, in nine startling, raw songs, accompanied by juddering electronic beats and strings suspended in space, that are often uncomfortable to listen to.
In the video for Black Lake, commissioned by MOMA, Bjork writhes around and tears at herself in a fissure in Iceland’s volcanic rock. “I am one wound,” she sings. “My soul torn apart, my spirit is broken.” On Family, she wonders: “Where do I go to make an offering, to mourn our miraculous triangle, father mother child?”
I ask her if she thought twice about releasing such a personal album, knowing that Barney and their daughter Isadora would have to live with it. “There were two or three songs that I felt were too… they were not right to share,” she says. The others acquired a momentum of their own. “It’s almost like a maternal instinct. You give them what they need, and that part of me took over.”
The following Saturday, she sings Vulnicura in full at Carnegie Hall, backed by Arca, a ten piece string section and a percussionist playing a steel drum-like instrument known as a hang. Reviews of the MOMA show are in, and they are largely cruel. In the New York Times, Roberta Smith calls it a cramped, tacky and poorly thought-out exhibition that sells Bjork short and “superficially promotes the Modern’s hipness while making the place even more unpleasant than usual.”
For the concert, Bjork is dressed all in white, with a headdress made out of fibre optic cables that looks like the seed pod of a dandelion. A screen behind her shows a visual representation of the score: pulsing lights for the synth, a line drawing itself for the strings, like a map in a movie, showing a character’s journey across the world, and exploding circles for the near subsonic bass, like dropped bombs viewed from the air. The lyrics are printed at the bottom. There is nowhere to hide from the catharsis.
It’s a challenging set, with not a hit to be found, but the new material sounds more powerful and less self-indulgent live. Not that it matters: this audience is ready to applaud every song choice and whoop at every gesture.
During the penultimate number, Mouth Mantra, Bjork walks to the front of the stage and spreads her arms wide. It has been almost two years since the split, and the album, now that it’s out there, has made her therapeutic songwriting sessions, alone in the moss and the lava, very public indeed. When she sings “I am not hurt” and a small spontaneous smile crosses her face, I believe her.