I hadn’t heard much of Bjork’s music, but the building excitement around her career-retrospective at the MOMA led to me to get pretty excited about the show… And then the reviews came in. They were harsh. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about the exhibit.
But I went, just the same as a lot of other people have been doing, judging by the lines. Was it horrid? Not exactly; there are some astonishing costumes on display, and an intriguing behind-the-scenes feeling permeates the exhibit. If only it wasn’t all presented in the jumbled, jumpy, what’s-going-on-here fashion it is. That feeling begins to creep in not long after you pick up your “timed” tickets, which tell you at which hour you’ll be able to see the show. After patiently waiting your turn, you are told the section of the show you have waited to see doesn’t include any of Bjork’s music videos, nor the specially-commissioned 10-minute clip for her new song “Black Lake”.
Once you walk into “Songlines”, the portion of the show you do get to see, you’re handed an iPod with headphones. A twisted tale of equal parts story-book puzzlement and art-school pretension plays, but switches abruptly to a new chapter whenever you walk into a different room. And how about those rooms? There are plenty of scribbly diaries, which might be awesome if you know every Bjork lyric and then got to see them IN HER HANDWRITING…But I’m not one of those people, and thus the diaries are of moderate interest. The costumes, on the other hand, are simply astonishing. There is a model for Bjork’s debut album cover, robot lovers, and an orange-haired Bjork in a big blue dress. These costumes, presented predictably but still plenty cool, leave more to be wanted from the rest of the exhibit. Something less abrupt, more cohesively arranged, and, most importantly, explanatory. If you don’t know who Bjork is, MOMA won’t try to help. “Songlines” features no introductory writing plastered on the wall, as we expect from museum shows, nor any explanation of the making of these albums or the creative process (besides those diaries). Die-hard Bjork fans, meanwhile, will find lots to admire, while the rest of us stumble around, intrigued, perplexed, and disappointed by it all.
When standing in line for the Bjork retrospective, I was struck by a spectacular sight: all nine of her album covers displayed chronologically on a black wall. What was the inspiration for these mini-art pieces? While there are no answers in the Bjork show, another MOMA exhibit, Making Music Modern: Design for the Ear and Eye, attempts to trace the relationship of music and design over more than six decades. There’s not a lot of explaining in the show and minimal behind-the-scenes info is provided. But there’s plenty to look at, all of it stuffed into one medium-sized room and most of it fascinating. There’s a wall of iconic album covers (think Sgt. Pepper, Exile on Main St., Dark Side of the Moon, and Remain in Light) that you know and love and are given a chance to reconsider in a contextualized setting. Elsewhere, there are posters and pamphlets, speakers and headphones, and lots more. Like the Bjork show, MOMA could have put a little more thought into the show’s organization, but there’s enough here to sufficiently immerse and educate, and occasionally wow.
There were other non-music shows that caught my eye, then forced to me think and evaluate, at MOMA. “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” wasn’t as revelatory as it’s description but presents a lot of interesting art, some captivatingly experimental, some straight-up magnificent. A cinematic surprise can be found on the museum’s bottom floor, where “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” stands to educate, challenge, and anger viewers. The exhibit presents footage for an all-black feature film, shot in 1913 and left on the cutting room floor for a century. What if this film, and not D.W. Griffith’s controversial Birth of a Nation, had sent shockwaves through America in the early 20th century? Might Hollywood be a more diverse, accepting place today? The show pokes at the heart and provokes the brain, bringing to life an alternate history of cinema that exists only in the mind.
The sights that thrilled me most at MOMA were placed on the two floors devoted to modern art history. Nothing new-fangled could be found there, only fresh, invigorating masterworks. like this, and this, and this too. Art history can seem stiff when found in textbooks, but the MOMA lets us see masterworks anew. And, really, who wouldn’t want a close-up look at van Gogh’s swirling blue sky, or Pollack’s messily magnificent splotches of color, or Warhol’s bright, bold soup cans. And that’s just the beginning. Rich, eclectic, and exhilarating, these rooms of art make it clear: the best art must be seen up close, in person, together, immediately.