Sunday, April 19, 2015

It's a Björk World After All, "Songlines" at MoMA (Revised)

An internationally renowned musician and artist who has won many awards, Björk is known for creating immersive, curious, and quirky music accompanying videos. One of the elements of the multi-floor MoMA exhibition is "Songlines," a 40 minute long immersive audio tour through most of her albums, featuring costumes, notebooks filled with lyrics, and random ephemera. The Björk retrospective has been unanimously panned by critics, which can cause viewers to go into the show expecting the worst. After the anticipatory hype of queuing, the museum staff provide exhibition goers audio guides. At the beginning of the audio tour a narrator implores the viewer to experience the exhibition fully, ensuring they spend sufficient time in each area. However, most visitors did not. If MoMA truly wanted everyone to spend the full 40 minutes, they should have put them on a timed tram ride.

Lacking any other contextualisation, biographical or historical introduction, the exhibition presupposes prior knowledge of the prolific musician. Unfortunately this renders the experience inaccessible and devoid of meaning to an uninitiated viewer. Those unfamiliar with Björk might consider the experience as hero worship. The knockoff Madame Tussaud mannequins did not help either. As a fan of Björk's music, I revelled each time a segment of a familiar song played, but found the audio guide's story narration to be annoying like an AM radio station I couldn't turn off. I was grateful to see her costumes in person, but all the exhibition ignited in me was the desire to listen to her music while going through the exhibition.

Although Björk has performed at MoMA and previously collaborated in museum educational events for children, a traditional career retrospective for a musician always feels like an odd marriage. Several museums have managed to make successful retrospectives of musicians' careers. Effective examples include the "David Bowie is" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. To make a career retrospective of a musician engaging and enjoyable I find it necessary to include more biographical background information, ephemera from various archives, and access to the music itself. Unfortunately MoMA decided to go in a less traditional direction that was not as compelling to a wide audience.

- J.E. Molly Seegers

1 comment:

  1. Your review says it all! I couldn’t agree with you more. It is curious that even though the critics have been so harsh about the exhibit, tickets are still selling out and lines of people patiently wait to enter. It has been hyped as such a spectacle and curiosity gets the best of us—we have to know just what is so bad. Further proof that any press is good press. You make a good point about the lack of context and how that could be used to ground the retrospective. I also liked the examples of exhibits that provided historical and biographical context successfully. Nice work!!