While in New York this past weekend I ventured up to the Björk exhibit at the MoMa. After the mixed reviews I had read, I was curious to see what a musician’s exhibit at an art museum could be like.
If you take your time and follow the advice they give you you’ll enjoy it, I certainly did. But if you rush through you will miss the big picture and it will be understandable why you only remember seeing creepy mannequins and hand written lyric notes (a summation of one reviewer.)
In the lobby of the MoMa sits a few of the instruments Björk created for Biophilia. Such as the gravity harp, midi-organ and gameleste/celeste combo. I was bummed the gravity harp wasn’t working, but the midi-organ was on auto play so that was cool. Iceland’s only pipe organ builder, Björgvin Tómasson, helped create these wonderful sounding instruments. As a side note, he is the father of Júlíus Óttar, a musician in one of my favorite bands of 2014, Var.
The exhibit is two parts spanning two floors. There is the audio tour, Songlines, that you have to get time reservations for, and the music video experience Black Lake, which is followed by a room you can relax in and watch Music videos from the Björk catalog. I highly suggest you get your timed reservations first, then go to the Black lake portion while you wait.
After getting our timed tickets we ventured off to wait in line for Black Lake. As you’re in line and look over, there is a multi-floor projection of the “Big-time sensuality” music video slowly playing on a massive wall which gives the impression of Björk watching over you as you enter her exhibit.
Black lake is in a cave-esque room with walls covered in sound insulating cones reminiscent of Volcanic rock. The only light is coming from two gigantic screens that face each other from opposite walls and there are over 45 speakers located on the ceiling and walls throughout the room. While waiting to begin, the screens display a message about the set up, and in big letters state that you should walk around, as the multiple channel set up means you will experience different parts of the song depending where you are in the room. I was shocked at how many people just stood still. I’m no audiophile, but the changing emphasis of the intricate parts of the song from different areas of the room really changed the feel of the song for me.
Once you leave the cave you move over to another room with a high ceiling and a massive screen showing Björk music videos. There are flowing fluid like couches that stretch out down the room, and it’s just a place you can rest and watch videos and be consumed by the large soundsystem and screen.
Songlines is the audio visual part of the tour. This is the part that requires the timed ticket, and you’ll appreciate the wait as without the timed stagger between entrants the tiny set of maze-like rooms you go through would be too packed to enjoy. You wear an iphone around your neck that they call your “heart”, and as you move from room to room it changes dialogue to that specific room.
In the introduction, they tell you to take your time, that the tour takes 40 minutes and that you should wait until each room’s audio is done before moving along. You’re free to move at your own pace but in this case, heed the advice and take your time. It’s the difference between a fantastic experience, and a blah one.
We live in a time where we seem to take a photo of what we are looking at before actually looking at it, and then move on to the next photo. We no longer take the time to consume what we are experiencing in the present, instead snapping a pic for later. If you run through this exhibit snapping selfies and photos of the lyric sheets and mannequins dressed in Björk clothing, you will miss the the best part, and you will never experience the full program. It is after all, called an audio tour through her 7 albums and history, not just an artifact hunt.
In one of the most minimal rooms in the exhibit (there are only two items) the walls have benches spanning each side of the room. You sit and relax with two red parenthesis-type red neon lights above you and you listen. There is an oddly loud bleed-through of the music video exhibit below, but you just rest, and listen to your “heart.” This room became my favorite part of the exhibit, and here’s why:
In the dialog from the “heart” around your neck, well past what you would hear if you just entered the room to look at the two items and left, you hear a beautiful account of the girl in the story’s realization of the child growing inside of her. In the story, the girl starts to hear, and realizes there is a new heartbeat inside her, the heartbeat of her daughter. And while you are listening to the story of her realization of her daughter’s heartbeat, through the “heart” around your neck, you can hear and feel the heartbeat of her music from below. It’s an all encompassing triumvirate of heart so to speak. It was really beautiful to me, and I left that room feeling really warm and fuzzy.
Now I don’t know if I’m stretching, and maybe it’s not what they intended, but I have to say I smirked and thought to myself, well played. And how fantastic to not start the room dialog with that but leave it for those who are actually listening and enjoying the exhibit. Once outside the exhibit I thought… Don’t be in such a rush, listen fully to your heart in good or bad times, and you’ll get the big picture.
So go to the exhibit, but don’t just go see it, go experience it. Take your shoes off and walk through the moss-fields barefoot. Don’t just snap photos, but think about what you’re hearing, seeing, and feeling. Live in the present for 45+ minutes, and it will all be worth it.
Endnote: This could very well be the most spiritualistic touchy-feely thing I’ve ever written or mentioned, and we can only hope my very spiritual touchy-feely mum who thinks I’m a stick in the mud doesn’t go into shock when she reads it.