Bjorkmania Recovers After a Rocky Start in New York

Bjork Carnegie Hall - H 2015
Kevin Mazur

Bjork Carnegie Hall - H 2015

The singer's MoMA exhibition drew a lackluster response from visitors, but a Saturday night performance at Carnegie Hall earned applause and cheers from the supportive crowd.

Starting all the way back in June of last year, when the Museum of Modern Art announced it would present a first-of-its-kind retrospective devoted to her, signs have pointed toward Bjork more or less owning New York during spring of 2015.

Not only would MoMA celebrate the wildly multifaceted artist, it would make her Biophilia software the first phone app to enter its collection of digital art. At the start of the year we learned that a new album was forthcoming, Vulnicura; then that she'd start a string of shows in surprisingly small venues with two in Carnegie Hall. Interviews began popping up that movingly revealed the human side behind her mercurial public persona; we learned that the new record was all about her breakup with longtime partner Matthew Barney. Having spied her occasionally at cultural functions, New Yorkers might finally get to know their strange neighbor from Iceland.

Bjorkmania hasn't gone exactly as planned, though. The album was leaked online, necessitating an ahead-of-schedule official iTunes release. Worse, the MoMA show drew heavy fire after its press preview on Tuesday, with critics (all of whom bent over backward to praise the artist's work itself) calling it an "undercooked" "disaster," a "strangely unambitious" "logistical nightmare" that "turns MoMA into Planet Hollywood." Those weren't the harshest things said about the exhibition and its organizers, who were accused of pandering to fans without making any effort to deliver insight into her groundbreaking fusion of music, visual arts, filmmaking and fashion.

Wednesday night, the public got its turn. During the "VIP Hour" of a party thrown by MoMA to celebrate the Armory Show art fair, visitors got early access to the Bjork exhibition. The reception was muted, even among those who hadn't had to wait through snarled lines to get in. "I have to ask 'why now?'" one British visitor told his friends; a younger fan, questioned after she left halfway through a screening of the emotionally raw, 11-minute "Black Lake" video (which was commissioned by MoMA and screens in its own sonically impressive but badly ventilated mini-theater), said she simply felt uncomfortable and awkward. In the "Songlines" section of the show, where a location-sensing audio guide played chunks of a fairytale-like story as viewers walked through, nobody seemed to be spending anywhere near as long in the rooms as they were instructed to. (The audio guide malfunctioned for this attendee, and, judging from online commentary, plenty of others.) Downstairs, guests were paying much more attention to celebrity DJs and other dressed-to-impress partygoers than to the long-anticipated exhibition.

All of which raised the stakes for Saturday's debut at Carnegie Hall. The artist's fans now weren't just rooting for her to survive the heartbreak of a broken family, but to shake off the taint of MoMA's ill-conceived "tribute." And she did.

Judging from overheard pre-show chatter, fans were impressed with the way Vulnicura captured the experience of love's collapse and convinced that performing its songs live would take a lot of bravery. When Bjprk took the stage, they applauded as an Oscar-night crowd might for a movie star battling cancer. The singer's wardrobe, a white gown and a quasi-helmet surrounding her entire head, seemed to bolster the idea that she needed emotional support: It both protected her, partly shielding her face from prying eyes, and made her look vulnerable, like a cellophane dandelion waiting to be destroyed by the first unkind breeze.

But in performance she was anything but fragile. Her voice was solid, her posture assertive. A large string section fleshed out supple arrangements of the new songs, and just in case audience members had trouble with Bjork's peculiar enunciation, lyrics of her soul-baring songs were projected on the wall behind her. (The subtitles were handy when, during "History of Touches," she slipped into Icelandic rather than sing about "Every single touch ... every single f--- we had together" in English.) Though in MoMA's "Black Lake" film her movements were like those of a woman whose grief had brought her to the brink of insanity, here she was on the mend — swaying thoughtfully during the song's long pauses. During "Stonemilker," she raised her arm insistently with the words "show me emotional respect."

After an intermission, the singer returned sans headgear, having let down her hair and donned a sari-like lavender dress. As mollusks groped each other in close-up nature footage projected behind her, she sang relatively recent songs about surviving hardship. While those in the crowd would probably have loved to hear at least a few old favorites (maybe to flesh out that unsatisfying retrospective a few blocks away), most seemed to accept that this first public performance was not about that, and to be relieved she had navigated this fraught event so well. By the time Bjork declared "I am not hurt" in the set-closing "Mouth Mantra," the audience cheered supportively without even waiting for the song to end.