Feminine power and explosive gender relations set against the surreal, desolate landscape of the world’s northernmost countries feature in the latest digital work from Iceland’s best known female music auteur, Björk.
Björk Digital had its world premiere at Carriageworks in Redfern, Sydney, on Friday as part of the Vivid festival. Nestled amongst a lush garden bed, dressed in white with a lime green headset, Björk jived along to her 5-hour DJ set of classical, Japanese and Bollywood-inspired ecstatic electronia, while more than 800 ravers looked on curiously and danced.
Spearheaded by Björk’s 2015, and most deeply personal album yet, Vulnicura (Latin for “Cure for Wounds”), the exhibition is dedicated to the 51-year-old artist’s female mystique, genre shifting music, video collaborations and virtual reality experimentation.
Vulnicura chronicles the breakdown of Björk’s 13-year marriage to New York visual artist, Matthew Barney. On entering the show, you are greeted in surround sound by the 10-minute, classically driven video aria for the song Black Lake.
Co-produced by LA fashion and music filmmaker, Andrew Huang, it is a relationship post-mortem and a dark, visceral love letter to her homeland. Björk appears as a wildly earthy, female warrior staggering through cave corridors of black volcanic rock that oozes with blue-tinged, suffragette purple lava. “Did I love you too much”, she sings in her childlike, submarine-deep voice.
Donning headphones in the next room, viewers experience a 3D virtual reality feast of the first song on the album, Stonemilker, also co-produced by Huang. It has a harrowing, heart string violin and an electronic dance feel. Wearing a soft canary yellow dress and white platform shoes, Bjork climbs over a rock wall on a black stone beach in Grotta, near her birth place of Reykjavik. “We have emotional needs”, she screeches.
Black Lake and Stonemilker had their first (rather cramped) showing at the Bjork Retrospective at MoMA in New York last year but the Carriageworks exhibition has dedicated more than five rooms to her work.
Another intimate headphone experience at Björk Digital – and the most avant garde track on Vulnicura – is the VR video, also turned phone app, Mouth Mantra. Partly filmed in Björk’s mouth, and directed by London-based Jesse Kanda, it offers views of her tongue aerobics and warped teeth, and a palpable sense of her emotional pain.
But these Vulnicura inspired pieces are just the tip of the iceberg of the Carriageworks exhibit. The Notget VR room showcases Björk’s bizarre masks made by her long time designer, James Merry while the Biophilia VR space, based on the artist’s 2011 collaboration with the naturalist David Attenborough, is an audio-visual exploration of the universe.
The final room in the exhibit screens two decades of her videos in collaboration with indie greats such as Michael Gondry and Spike Jones.
Björk hails from a small, geographically isolated country, which is becoming a world leader in technology, environmentalism, experimental music and feminism. These elements are omnipotent in the aesthetic and immersive experience of this exhibition.
With a population of less than 350,000, Iceland has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world, and hosts more than ten music festivals per year. Later this month, its Secret Solstice festival will be certified carbon neutral.
Iceland has had two female heads of state and was the first country in the world to ban stripping and lapdancing for feminist, rather than religious, reasons.
While promoting Vulnicura, Björk bypassed interview requests from the middle-aged, male reporters who dominate the global music industry.
She opted for the transformative potential of female critics, such as Pitchfork.com’s senior music writer Jessica Hooper, author of the 2015 bestseller, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
This was part of Björk’s strategy to challenge the femme fatale stereotyping and marginalisation of women in the music industry, across the media, management and production.
As Hooper writes, “as much as this record is about him [Barney]”, it is also about Björk reclaiming “herself as a woman, artist and feminist”.
Winner of the 2016 Brit Awards for Best International Female Solo Artist, Björk has scoffed at the misreports that the nine-track Vulnicura was produced by her new collaborator, 26-year-old Venezuelan electronica producer, Arca (Alejandro Ghersi), when it was, in fact, she and Arca who worked on it. As Björk recalled in a January interview in Pitchfork,
After being the only girl in bands for 10 years, I learnt – the hard way – that if I was going to get my ideas through, I was going to have to pretend that they – men – had the ideas.
In AnOther magazine Bjork has said of the music industry:
I want to support young girls who are in their 20s and tell them: ‘You’re not imagining things. It’s tough’.
Björk Digital at Carriageworks runs until 18 June.