Agenius to some, a freak to others, but say the name Bjork and one way or another, everyone has an opinion. While she might seem a niche choice for this Spring’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) blockbuster exhibition ( March 8-June 7, 2015), in reality, she’s a one-woman powerhouse. Her fan base spans not just one genre and generation, but music, art, fashion, film and photography through four decades.
Cannes 2000 Best Actress Award winner; 20-million-record-selling artiste; Alexander McQueen muse; Iceland’s Joan of Arc (during the nadir of the financial crisis in 2008, she set up a venture capital fund to save the country’s economy). You can’t be everything to everyone – unless, that is, you’re Bjork.
So what is it about this 50-year-old girlwoman, known for shrieks, coos and infamously laying an egg on the Oscar red carpet, that continues to fascinate us all? In the 2003 BBC documentary Inside
Bjork, there’s Elton John calling her “the only true innovative artist out there in popular music”; super curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist underlining her significance in pushing forward visual art as much as experimental sound; and not to mention the line-up of other luminaries professing their admiration. These range from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to Missy Elliott, Sean Penn and director Lars von Trier.
It’s not just that the planet she lives on is so alien. A purist and a chameleon, her body of work jumps from one extreme to another. Yet whatever the medium, the outcome is never short on sophistication, provocation and authenticity.
Her biggest hit to date, which came in 1995, is an anomaly in her esoteric repertoire. It’s Oh So Quiet is a peppy cover of ’ 40s blonde bombshell Betty Hutton’s 1951 B-side Blow a Fuse . Yet as happy-clappy as it may seem (complete with a video shot Broadway musical-style by Spike Jonze), it just wouldn’t be Bjork’s without that capricious touch. The song goes from hushed whispers to the blare of full-blown big band jazz and back, peppered with a couple of her unmistakable shrieks. This is the closest the songstress has ever gotten to mainstream. It is unabashedly pop and, boy, did it succeed, staying in the UK charts for 15 weeks.
But as we know, Bjork is one pop princess who doesn’t care for MTV Video Music Awards (though the song received six nominations and won for “Best Choreography”). She virtually disowned the song by excluding it from her 2002
Greatest Hits album. “It was sort of a joke really. It was a song (music director) Guy Sigsworth used to play on the bus when we were touring. Ever since, I almost regret it because I wanted to put so much importance on making new music. If I put something out in this world, it would be the courage to go ahead and invent things,” she told UK music magazine
Five albums and 16 years later, Bjork produced her most recent and barrierbusting album yet. Biophilia (2011) has been exalted by the powers-that-be, from
Wired to British music magazine Mojo, as “the future of the entire record industry” – a pretty hefty accolade, but hardly undeserved for the world’s first app album. Each track is accompanied by an app available for download on iTunes. Here’s how Apple describes the album’s mindboggling multimedia music experience: “Comprising a suite of original music and interactive, educational artworks and musical artifacts, Biophilia is released as 10 in-app experiences that are accessed as you fly through a three-dimensional galaxy that accompanies the album’s theme song Cosmogony.”
As far as Bjork’s otherworldly ventures go, it’s right up there. It also showcases her extraordinary ability to not just bring pop into the avant-garde, but also pull the avant-garde into popular culture.
It debuted in the top 40 of every single worldwide chart it entered. Last summer, MOMA announced that the Biophilia app would be the first downloadable app in the museum’s permanent collection. “With this latest album, Bjork truly innovated the way people experience music by letting them participate in performing and making the music and visuals, rather than just listening passively,” said MOMA senior curator Paola Antonelli.
The exhibition opening this month connects the dots in Bjork’s trailblazing career, spanning 20 years and her last seven albums. It chronicles her own daring output and collaborations with creatives considered among this century’s greatest minds. Yet with all her album art on display, we are reminded that her status as fashion maverick has been earned through a series of images, each as celebrated as the next. The most rehashed fashion image of the singer is probably that of her in Marjan Pejoski’s swan dress at the 2001 Oscars. It was voted the ninth most iconic red carpet dress of all time in a 2008 poll published in the Daily T elegraph, and recently reimagined by Valentino at its Spring 2014 couture show.
There was the time Alexander McQueen dressed her in a kimono and directed Nick Knight to shoot her for the cover of her album Homogenic (1997). The time she wore a jacket crafted from airmail envelope paper, designed by Hussein Chalayan, for the cover of Post (1995). And the time uber-stylist Eugene Souleiman created a red wig resembling a nebula for the cover of Biophilia, shot by celebrated photography duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. “It’s about synchronising what happens inside and outside. I can’t relax unless I look on the outside the same as I feel inside,” says the singer of her approach to dressing.
Unlike too many image-makers today, Bjork the icon is not a construct. She is as far as you can get from an Instagram star. She is about inspiration, not aspiration. She continues to intrigue not because we want to look, dress or be like her. Instead, she challenges us, makes us think and want to reach for the stars.