Reasons Why We Love Björk

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Björk for AnOther Magazine A/W10
Björk for AnOther Magazine A/W10Photography by Inez and Vinoodh, Styling by Camilla Nickerson

As the MoMA show opens, we celebrate a musical goddess and icon of creativity and collaboration

We’re at the centre of a Björk moment. Fresh from releasing her ninth solo album Vulnicura – two months early after it was leaked online by hackers – this Sunday, MoMA in New York opens a mid-career retrospective of the musician titled simply Björk. It requires no subtitle.

Björk grew up in a family of what she describes as Icelandic hippies. She was uncannily musical from an early age, recording her first self-titled album aged 11, before forming a band called the Sugarcubes and going on tour aged 20 with her newborn son in tow. In 1993 she released a solo album, Debut, to great acclaim and since then she has pushed and played with the boundaries and expectations of music and performance, remaining in the public consciousness – undoubtedly Iceland’s most famous export – yet continually innovating and exploring music in all its forms.

She says she is “not a number one artist”, yet she packs stadiums, sells millions of albums and currently has queues snaking round New York as fans await the chance to see the props and costumes from her performances, see the instruments, watch the music videos and listen to the narration – an interactive, location-based audio journey through Björk’s albums, written by Sjón. Early reactions to the show have been mixed, but what is abundantly clear is that Björk is an artist who people want to experience, investigate and understand. So to mark the opening of the show, and the release of Björk: Archives, Thames & Hudson’s beautiful complimentary slipcase designed by M/M Paris, we explain why we love her.

Adventures in Fashion
Björk is one of music’s most expressive characters, and much of this expression emerges through her eternally exhilarating adventures in fashion. She helped launch Alexander McQueen’s career when she wore one of his fantastical creations on the cover of her 1997 album Homogenic, the start of a relationship that would culminate in her performance of Gloomy Sunday wearing wooden wings at the designer’s memorial service in 2010. Her album covers, videos and performances are always signified by a startling new creation, almost a new character each time – whether it be the wide-eyed ingénue captured by Glen Luchford in 1993, Medulla’s masked spirit creature, the carnival coloured sculpture by Bernard Willhelm for the Volta cover or Bibliophilia’s orange haired crystal goddess.

It’s clear that fashion excites her. She relishes the dramatic while evading the outlandish – her choices always have thought and wit behind them, most famously the Swan Dress which so bemused commentators at the 2001 Academy Awards. As Björk made her elegant progress down the red carpet, “laying” ostrich eggs along the way, she was widely dismissed a European eccentric and sternly added to every “worst dressed” list. In response, Björk shrugged: “It’s just a dress”.

The Doyenne of the Music Video
Björk’s repertoire of music videos is awe-inspiring. They strip away the misconception that a video is simply a vehicle to better sell a song, and delve deep into the ideas and musicality that forged their tracks. They are stories of collaboration between musician and filmmakers, and the energy, emotion and intellect emerges on the screen.

The film for her first solo single Human Behaviour was made by Michel Gondry, marking the start of a relationship that would be revisited in another seven videos over the next two decades, while Stephane Sedounai’s Big Time Sensuality, also from her first album, was a simple exercise in demonstrating Björk’s honest emotional connection to the camera and her audience – as well as spawning a million hair imitators. And the film innovations have continued – Spike Jonze’s reconfiguration of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for It’s Oh So Quiet, Chris Cunningham’s extraordinary exploration of love in the robot age which took over a year to finish, and the star of 2004’s Who Is It, the McQueen dress made from thousands of bells and worn on a vast lava field teeming with youthful bell ringers. At the heart of the MoMA exhibition, alongside many of the costumes made part of pop culture history by these videos, is the special 11 minute film created for the first single from the new album – Black Lake, commissioned by the museum and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang.

A thirst for collaboration and innovation
Björk’s continuing quest for the new is led by a genuine curiosity and excitement for innovation and ideas, and more often than not it emerges from collaboration with others. The list of those who she has worked with is endless, extending far beyond the illustrious directors of her music videos shown above. She worked continually with her husband, the artist Matthew Barney, until their marriage ended 18 months ago – but the collaboration continues in a way, as she grounded the anguish and their break up into the chords and emotions of Vulnicura.

Her co-producers include Timbaland, and for Vulnicura, Arca – previously best known for his work with FKA Twigs and Kanye West. She has dueted with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and acted and sung for Lars von Trier in Dancer in the Dark, for which she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. Nick Knight has shot her many times and directed videos for her, including the startlingly beautiful Pagan Poetry. She has experimented in tech, pioneering a new type of album release when she launched Biophilia as a multimedia project that unravelled through a series of apps, for which she cites David Attenborough and his attitude to nature as one of her great inspirations. 

Careers have been forged through relationships with Björk. McQueen was brought to prominence through his work with her, and photographers Inez and Vinoodh – who first started working with the artist 17 years ago – have tracked their rise to fame at her side, shooting much of her album artwork as well as the shimmeringly beautiful covershoot for AnOther Magazine A/W10, where Björk appears as a crucible of ancient and modern, a shoreline goddess emerging at once from the past and future. 

Björk is at MoMA from March 8 to June 7; Björk: Archives is out now, designed by M/M Paris and published by Thames & Hudson.