Alternative Title: "Thoughts on morbidly specific manifestations of culture absent-mindedly phrased by a happy-go-lucky snob every once in a while". A lot of this column will be about music (in some shape or form). Half extracted from phone notes taken during or immediately after live shows, half imagined while waiting for trains in South London, this project aspires, at its best, to be a “7 stops on the night bus” kind of read. As for the why, after spending three years mostly picking things apart from within, there is something vaguely therapeutic in taking ten minutes every now and again to sincerely, un-ironically praise whatever I subjectively consider praise-worthy. There will be no miracles here, and I reserve the right to unapologetically use “over-the-top” as a compliment.”
Björk is Dead,
Long Live Björk
8th November 2019
Split into many parts
Splattered light beams into prisms
That will reunite
~ The Gate (Björk/Arca)
For anybody vaguely aware of music as a phenomenon during the last 25 years or so, Björk doesn’t need an introduction. Instead, I’d like to reproduce a comment made in an interview with Rolling Stone by one of her closest collaborators in recent years, Arca (Alejandra Ghersi if you’re nasty): “When I met Björk, (…) it was like an oxygen you get from a person you only can exist with symbiotically. It’s one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve had.” ‘Symbiotically’ is key, since Björk’s career has been defined by the intersection of self-expression and collaboration. Common logic dictates that it takes a lot of the former to consistently engage in the latter without losing recognisability. There is no real ambition to this text other than to showcase some of Björk’s most iconic recent visual collaborations. Rather than a hot take or an expose, it feels like a love letter.
Still from The Juniper Tree; 1990 (dir. Nietzchka Keene)
One of the fields of visual collaboration any celebrity is bound to engage in is, of course, photography. Björk has worked with a plethora of A-list photographers and magazines, but rather than recount them in listicle form, I’d like to make the best of editorialising and revisit a personal favourite: the 2007 squid ink pasta Juergen Teller photoshoot. Teller has frequently worked with Björk, and is responsible for some of her most well-known photographs, but Spaghetti Nero, aside from striking an aesthetic chord with your humble columnist, also happens to relate to the notion of continuous transformation strengthening rather than dissolving individuality.
Björk in Spaghetti Nero by Juergen Teller (2007)
There is something immediately arresting about this image. It shows an idiosyncratic, somewhat unexpected Björk. But ‘unexpected’ is the quintessential expectation audiences have of her at this point. It’s almost as though her many superimposed faces coexist with a certain permanence, an ‘always face,’ a kernel of being-herself-ness that is difficult to verbalise. This photograph was shown in the exhibition Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep, first staged in 2013 as part of Nottingham Contemporary, then moving to Tate St Ives. [The show was a thoroughly fascinating project that deserves to be periodically revisited; the accompanying publication is also well worth reading.] In an interview for AnOther magazine, interviewer Laura Allsop specifically asked Alex Farquharson, the then-director of Nottingham Contemporary and current director of Tate Britain, about this image. He had this to say: “What I really like about that image is that it’s almost bestial, kind of metamorphic; it’s like she’s undergoing metamorphosis and becoming squid herself (…) the black ink contrasts brilliantly with her black hair, which is flecked with squid ink. (…) In the exhibition this particular image sits next to a beautiful, very tiny Lucian Freud painting of a squid that looks like an odd, misshaped human nude and it’s also leaking its black ink – so there are these little correlations throughout.” In a seemingly paradoxical way, there is something fundamentally human about these transformations.
Björk’s long-running Iris van Herpen collaboration has brought her unique approach to (performative) fashion to new avant-garde depths. [In the words of self-made internet fashion critic and most honourable sister Luke Meagher, “Iris van Herpen invented haute couture.”] The designer confirms what other Björk co-creators have been saying over the years: “She’s never really saying to somebody: ‘make this’. She gives a lot of freedom, and that’s what’s so beautiful about working with her.” Björk has worn Iris on red carpets, during live performances, and on the cover of Biophilia (2011). However, there is one look everybody’s already talked about that we absolutely have to keep talking about: 'the Cornucopia dress' aka 'the Orchid dress' aka 'the Sphaera dress' aka one of the most memorable instances of custom wearable art in recent memory.
Not only does it continuously change shape together with the performance, it works as a de facto light installation whose luminescence harmonises with the movements of both the body and the garment. It is a collaboration between van Herpen, Björk, and light/installation artist Nick Verstand (some of his more accessible work can be seen at last year’s Lumiere Festival in London). This really is one of those rare cases where individual artistry emerges more rather than less clearly through collaboration with other sui generis creatives. Rather than the age-old question of the performing artist and the dress and who is wearing whom, Björk and the Cornucopia dress can be said to wear each other, and both are somehow even more strikingly themselves for it.
Björk in the Cornucopia Dress by Iris van Herpen (2019)
Before Utopia, innovative make-up might have eventually come to mind in relation to Björk, but it definitely wasn’t an immediate association. Hungry (@isshehungry), a Berlin-based experimental make-up artist and drag performer, changed that. Hungry was the artistic director for the cover of Utopia, and was responsible for Björk’s makeup in the Blissing Me and Utopia videos, several photoshoots (including W Mag and Time Out), as well as the Utopia Tour in the spring of 2018, and the still-ongoing Cornucopia Tour. The character Hungry painted on Björk was essentially the singular vision of three people: Björk, Hungry, and James Merry, whom we’ll return to shortly.
I remember the moment Hungry’s involvement was announced. The majority of the makeup-as-fine-art community agreed the pairing would make history. So rather than try to interpret it away, which is always a terrible approach to the whimsical, I’ll leave a moment of silence for the bird flutes.
Björk in her promotional look for Utopia by @isshehungry
Of course, some of Björk’s most iconic collaborations are with other musicians. Remember that time she did an orchestral-show tune-style song with Thom Yorke? Who doesn’t? However, these fall outside the scope of visual collaboration (the subject, however tangentially, of the present discussion). I would only like to quote Arca again, from that same interview she did with Rolling Stone, as a sort of confirmation-from-within of what has been said so far: “On the professional level, there’s no other word for me but genius. There’s just a degree of proficiency in every single aspect of how [Björk] wants to express herself. She can do her own string arrangements, but at the same time, she is the most generous and easiest collaborator.” Arca’s key role in Vulnicura (2015) translated into equal, perhaps even greater involvement, in Utopia (2017).
What has Björk been up to since? Other than touring the world (twice), she’s been reimagining (the theme of reinvention and reincarnation seems inescapable in the Björk context) some of her recent work through the lens of new technology. On September 6 this year, she released Vulnicura VR, a set of immersive virtual reality music videos for songs from the 2015 album. This was, unsurprisingly, a collaborative project. The concepts were created together with artist and designer James Merry, her co-creative director from Biophilia to the present. [Originally a student of Classical Greek at Oxford, Merry is individually responsible for the custom masks and headpieces she’s worn over the last ten years; in his spare time, of which there is very little, he embroiders flowers on vintage streetwear.] Björk has referred to him as “my co-pilot”, and there is something inherently beautiful in that idea: of having to learn to fly ‘it’ together, ‘it’ being… the whole thing. In an interview with the Guardian, responding to a question about audience reception of Vulnicura VR around the world so far, Merry said, “It’s so beautiful seeing tears coming out of the bottom of a VR headset.”
What a time to be alive, especially if you happen to be Björk.
The complete Vulnicura VR is available as an individual immersive experience at Otherworld, a virtual reality bar in Hackney, until the end of the year. VR headset owners can purchase it digitally on Steam.