Bjork Vulnicura Album Art

Björk Digital at Somerset House: Review

A new exhibition at Somerset House in London shows Björk continues to be a restless, experimental artist even if the tech she uses sometimes doesn’t quite deliver on her ambitions.

Björk has long been admired as much for her visual artistry as her musical prowess: take a glance at her back catalogue of music videos and album covers and her distinctive style is clear. So it is unsurprising to find that she is one of the first, and most prominent, artists to be dabbling in virtual reality: a medium which shows remarkable potential but is very much still at the baby steps stage.

One of the primary hurdles of VR is access: while numerous headsets are available for purchase, from the basic model of Google Cardboard to the Oculus Rift, out at last this summer, only a few people have them hanging around the home. Hence the main reason for this exhibition; within Björk is offering visitors a chance to experience her VR works, which number three at Somerset House, with additional films being added as the show tours the world.

Bjork Black Lake
From Black Lake film by Andrew Thomas Huang

Björk Digital opens fairly conventionally, however, with Andrew Thomas Huang’s film Black Lake, originally commissioned by MoMA in New York last year for its major – and savagely reviewed – Björk retrospective. Shown across two screens, the film sees Björk perform the song, which appears on her album Vulnicura and is an emotional dissection of the breakdown of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, against a stark Icelandic backdrop.

From there we move into the VR section of the show, with a series of rooms with headsets placed on stools, and in one instance, hanging from the ceiling. As is her tendency, Björk is central to all the films here, appearing in a number of guises. In Stonemilker (another film by Andrew Thomas Huang) she performs directly and earnestly to the viewer, while Notget by Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones sees her transformed into a giant digital moth. Mouth Mantra by Jesse Kanda, meanwhile, plunges the viewer into an abstract, spinning film shot inside the singer’s mouth. Shown below are some of these films as they appear on YouTube.

Bjork Notget VR
From Notget VR film by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

The results are varied, depending in part on how well the tech is faring on the headsets. On my visit, one set had double vision, while in another the sound wasn’t working. The headsets themselves are heavy and uncomfortable and feel restraining: the opposite, I suspect, of the impact that Björk hopes to achieve. None of this is Björk’s fault – VR is in its infancy and these early experiments highlight its current limitations as much as they hint at its future potential. It is frustrating right now, for example, that there is no scope for interaction with other people when in the sets, though it’s possible to imagine how magical that will be when the capability emerges.

On a more prosaic level, there is still an urgent need to work out how to successfully present VR and other digital works in exhibition spaces: it feels wearying to enter room after room of headsets, no matter how dynamic the content within may be, and this problem is even more apparent in a room exhibiting the app created to accompany Björk’s earlier album Biophilia. I really enjoyed this app when it first came out but its display here on multiple small tablets with headphones doesn’t encourage the time or exploration that it deserves. By the time I reach the ‘cinema’ space, which is showing a reel of Björk’s older videos from the likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Stephane Sedanaoui, the simplistic viewing format (woman in front of screen) is something of a relief.

Bjork Digital at Somerset House
Installation view at Björk Digital show. Photo © Santiago Felipe
Bjork Digital Poster
Poster for Björk Digital show. Photo: Nick Knight; Typography: M/M Paris

But if you can put aside a desire for tech perfection, and approach the show as a work-in-progress with VR, there’s much to enjoy. Björk as a performer is as captivating as ever, and she continues to draw magic and intrigue out of her collaborators. If you want a full immersive experience you probably won’t find it here – it’s not a patch on the kind of immersion that you’d get at a Björk concert, for example – but as a glimpse of the artistic possibilities of VR, it’s fascinating.

Björk Digital is at Somerset House in London until October 23; entry is £15/£12.50 concessions. somersethouse.org.uk

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media