There has been an immense volcano building up under the Museum of Modern Art for some time, a well of rage from old-school art fans about its turn towards commerce and celebrity and tourism. The current Björk show, celebrating the Icelandic songstress as, in the words of curator Klaus Biesenbach in the catalogue, an “era-defining artist,” will very likely be occasion for an eruption. You may expect an immense Eyjafjallajökull-sized ash-plume of critical bile to appear over midtown any second now. Because, ladies and gentlemen, this show is bad.
I went in ready to defend MoMA. Björk, I thought, is something interesting, the epitome of a certain kind of odd-duck cool. Many, many reviews will be written about MoMA’s “Björk” show fiasco — scathing, hilarious reviews, reviews whose savagery will be in direct proportion to the smarmy hype leading up to it—based on the premise that celebrating a pop star is by itself bad. I don’t agree. Nothing in principle is bad about a Björk show, or even about a little pop-culture populism.
But the pop turn raises challenges that have to be thoughtfully addressed. It has to be done right. You need to nail it, and MoMA has instead stepped on a nail, or rather, hot lava.
What do you get from the “Björk” experience? The heart of it is something like a cross between a fashion show and a theme-park ride, though that doesn’t make it sound as lame as it actually is. After waiting in a long line — and this is MoMA-plus-a-celebrity, so long lines are part of the experience—you strap on a small iPod and headphones for a “psychographic journey” through Björk’s oeuvre.
“Take your time,” a soothing voice tells you, introducing the experience, suggesting about “five minutes per room, about 40 minutes overall.” Five minutes to a gallery is a pretty low bar for taking your time, I thought. But then I got in there, and five minutes in these rooms, in fact, seems an eternity, as if you had been plunged into some kind of special purgatory for half-baked celeb worship and muddled exhibition design.
Each small chamber is organized around one of Björk’s eight albums, feeling at once cramped and underwhelming. There are props from her various music videos, and some pages of hand-written lyrics and ephemera under glass. Behind a glass display are the love-making robots from Chris Cunningham’s All Is Full of Love video, looking here as if they are recovering from a night of too much Svedka vodka. Nearby, the album cover for Homogenic, the one where Björk is made up as a space geisha, has inexplicably been animated so that she blinks every so often.