This piece was written for A Gathering of the Tribes literary magazine online, but since their website is down indefinitely, the piece is being posted here.
Björk, “Mutual Core” video still, 2012. Dir. Andrew Thomas Huang. Courtesy of Wellhart Ltd and One Little Indian
I got lost several times, in rapid succession, trying to find Björk last Friday at the MOMA. No matter how many times I go there, my sense of direction is always scrambled once I hit Midtown. I dashed into a vast lobby where a woman sat behind a desk, next to a sign that claimed that the MOMA entrance was two doors to the right. In fact, it was two doors to the left, which leads me to believe that the sign and the woman have been assigned to this station specifically to throw the befuddled further off course. Despite having been a victim of it, I approve of this scheme because it is probably an effective way to thwart tourists, who are clearly growing more rampant by the hour.
Inside I found my cousin, singer-songwriter Melaena Cadiz, and we proceeded to get lost together. We caught glimpses of mannequins and projections of Björk, which kept appearing and disappearing like the Cheshire Cat—once we would dart up an escalator in pursuit of one of these figures, we’d find ourselves instead in the clutches of Jean Dubuffet or Claude Cahun. There are worse clutches to be in, so we didn’t mind. Finally Melaena and I spotted and joined a small crowd that was entering Black Lake, the effective two-channel music video installation/immersive aural mineral bath that MOMA commissioned specifically for this exhibition. The piece is powered by 44 speakers, so each sonic element is located in space. I felt like I was inside the song. Meanwhile, Björk appears on opposite walls, a lone figure roaming a volcanic landscape. Surrounded by rocky textures not unlike those in Dubuffet’s nearby Soul of the Underground, the visionary Icelandic artist sings plaintively about a soul ravaged by love and betrayal. As I enter the atmosphere I burn off layer by layer. Soon blue magma is pouring down around her. The catalogue indicates that this work relates to Björk’s breakup with longtime partner, Matthew Barney, and critics have pointed to the line “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions” as being a direct reference to the art star, whose work, like hers, has often presented sleek and stylish renderings of biological hybridity. And Black Lake, with its visual focus on geological rupture in a terrain that bears no signs of civilization, could itself be viewed as being a smidge apocalyptic. Yet one has the sense that the song and its singer long for transformation, not destruction.
The other half of the exhibition is Songlines. Indeed, this portion of the exhibition features many songs and you have to wait in lines to get into it. Songlines had sold out by the time Melaena and I arrived. Lucky for us, a benevolent info lady slipped us a ticket she said she’d be unable to use. “They’ll probably let you both in. Just smile a lot… And pretend you don’t speak English.” It worked. So we wound through corridors and nooks, encountering tableaus, hand-written song lyrics, sheet music, projections, photographs and wax museum-style mannequins that display the singer’s costumes, while listening through the earphones of a location-sensitive device that dispatches excerpts of songs from throughout Bjork’s career, and an abstracted biography of Björk by Icelandic poet Sjón. The heart in her breast had become a crossroads… and she herself had become a tree that grew a heart on every branch.
Having been criticized widely and wildly for being too populist, and too slight to do its artist justice, the retrospective has become the latest centerpiece in an ongoing conversation about celebrity, integrity, elitism, and the commercialization of the art world. But the show has not been bad for Björk. On the contrary, it appropriately has served as an occasion to reflect on and celebrate her estimable contributions to music and culture at large. In the course of excoriating the show, New York Times critic Roberta Smith praises the artist on all fronts—visual, musical, dramatic; she even compares Bjork’s singing to Maria Callas and asserts that the camera loves her as much as it did Marilyn Monroe. Generally, everyone seems to be taking a moment to consider Björk on her own terms, and to register what a treasure she is. Her star rose in the 20th century and it is difficult to imagine as original and realized an artist moving to the fore in the past 15 years, a period where contrivance and bland imitation have ruled the mainstream. We should remember: A true star should seem like an alien who came crashing down one day. A true star bubbles with particularity, moving, thinking, and acting in accordance with her own mysterious set of principles, running on her own strange motor. Björk is precisely this sort of being.
The next day I ventured downtown to a refreshingly uncrowded reading, Jason Napoli Brooks’ intergenerational and inspired series, The Enclave at Cakeshop. Chavisa Woods presented a funny and affecting story, indicting the American fantasies of heroism that lure young working class men into the armed services. Despite having characterized such men as “dumb,” Woods found herself unexpectedly mobbed by an effusive group of young cadets who were visiting town and had wandered into the reading, heard her piece, and instantly become her fans. Then, after extolling the virtues of brevity in a lengthy introduction, novelist and essayist Frederic Tuten read a rich and crackling satire of Robert Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, entitled The Timid Investigators, and left us all wanting more. The room was dingy as all get-out and the sound system was obviously haunted. My friend, musician Mike Hanf, remarked that the series must be “the last bastion”– of actual, low-down, high-minded cultural activity on the block. He must be right.
Sunday I met up with performance artist Holly Hughes, who was in town for the weekend. As we sat in a café on 6th avenue, I was still mulling over the MOMA show in my mind, so I decided to bring a few questions before the guru Hughes. “Is what Roberta Smith said true? Does the camera love Björk as much as it did Marilyn Monroe?”
“You’d have to ask the camera,” Hughes replied. “He probably doesn’t remember Marilyn Monroe! I know he has the same name, but he’s a different person now than he was 50 years ago.” That settled it, then. I sallied forth across town with this nugget of wisdom, over to the East Village restaurant Pangea to see and hear a concert by the “avant chanteuse” Carol Lipnik, whom the downtown scene has fully embraced upon the release of her 5th full-length album, Almost Back to Normal. A few blocks downtown, the street was still sectioned off in the aftermath of the gas explosion, which I’d been tracking primarily through the Facebook Page of stalwart East Village diner B&H. “Tanky God we OK” had come as a great relief amidst the turmoil.
Pangea was teeming with people, all abuzz because, lo and behold: Björk herself was in attendance. Unlike the NYU students snapping group selfies down the street, grinning vacantly next to the rubble, this was a sophisticated set; no one hounded the famous singer. We all packed into the cabaret room in the back of the restaurant. In addition to the Big B, many other artists were present: performance artists John Kelly and Jill Pangallo, underground dance musician Shane Shane, actor Michael Cavadias, director Kevin Malony (who co-produced the event), photographer Everett McCourt, and intrepid documenter of the downtown performance scene, Jackie Rudin.
Lipnik is a theatrical singer-songwriter whose voice possesses the earthy sincerity of a folksinger, yet can fill out into a blues belt, drop down to become low and hollow like the tolling of a funeral bell, or fly up to masquerade as the whistling wind. At times she imbues her soprano with the bright edge and urgency of a rock singer and in other instances conjures an otherworldly tone that seems more likely to be emanating from a singing saw than a human. Alluding to climate change, Lipnik considers the songs on her most recent album to be “talismans and shields to take with you into battle—the battle being the increasingly uncertain world.”
Many of these new songs focus on natural landscapes and geological processes, which Lipnik approaches with all the wonder of a 19th century Romanticist. Yet this wonder is tempered by hints of a disturbance, reflecting the contemporary psyche that belongs to our contentious new epoch, the Anthropocene— a condition in which we can no longer ‘observe nature’ but must register our role in affecting the environment and bringing about the imminent extinction of various species, perhaps even our own. “Oh the Tyranny” is a forlorn paean to the moon, and “The Oyster and the Sand” speaks from the perspective of a glass that fell off a ship and first transformed into sea glass, then sand, and finally into the pearl of an oyster. “Soñodora Dreamer” imagines a landless existence. We may be lost, we may be free, in the shifting sea, churning in the sea… In its chorus the song becomes an ecstatic advertisement for life on the open ocean. You and me, floating in the world! In the floating world! You can join us in the floating world! Lipnik chants, as though she has been hired to deliver a deranged recruitment campaign message for the navy, or a 30-second jingle for a cruise line. The term “floating world” calls up also the urban hedonism of Edo-period Japan, Ukiyo, and its homophone that means the ‘sorrowful world’, which Wikipedia describes as “the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release.” The quest for release—through pleasure or detachment—certainly felt present in Lipnik’s song as she swayed on stage like a medium, accompanied by the sensitive pianist Matt Kanelos.
Lipnik’s special guest of the night was the drag queen Sweetie. In addition to being one of the most adept lip-synchers in the world—she does not mouth words, but breathes and embodies them– Sweetie is one of drag’s premiere thespians, a barely disputable fact that was made evident as she performed songs such as Lil’ Kim’s “M.A.F.I.A. Land,” and Dolly Parton’s “He’s Alive” as though they were monologues that naturally demand all the focus, restraint and emotional logic of a seasoned method actor. Bewigged and dressed in what might be TJ Maxx’s finest, she brought an unexpected sense of psychological realism to a form that is often dominated by pageantry and parody. And whereas many lesser drag artists rely on the drama, excitement, and cathartic moments of whatever pop track they’re using to give life and interest to their otherwise lackluster routines, Sweetie does the opposite: she always lends new dimension to a song, and illuminates meaning and emotional currents already present within it.
After Sweetie lip-synched to Lipnik’s recording of Harry Nilsson’s “Life Line,” she returned the stage to Lipnik and Kanelos. Björk expressed vocal excitement when Lipnik announced she would perform “an anthem for crows.” And as Lipnik wandered out through the audience during a subsequent song, she acknowledged Björk. For several moments the two strange birds stared at one another, smiling.
The show ended after two or three encores and everyone started hanging out. “Don’t take any shots of Björk,” Lipnik warned the photographer. “She’s here relaxing with friends and doesn’t want to be photographed.” He amicably agreed. But oh, how disappointed the camera must have been.