Even in this modern multi-media age there are still only a handful of artists whose creative output genuinely tests the boundaries between art and music. If it were a list, it’d be pretty short: Björk would be at or near the top and Ronnie Wood’s oil paintings would be mercilessly omitted. Perhaps the list is so scant because the two genres have such different commercial bases – art makes money through scarcity and exclusivity and music makes money through mass consumption. More specifically, artists express themselves within the context of a body of work and leave it to museums and critics to piece that context together, whereas musicians inhabit their own context crafted by fans, management and record companies.
Like almost no other music artist, Björk’s work has been a journey along these boundaries, but Björk: Archives doesn’t feel like a bold stride in the same direction, instead stumbling in a conflict of purpose – is it an original piece of art or an exhibition catalogue?
Published by Thames & Hudson to coincide with a major exhibition due to open this March at MoMA in New York chronicling her career, Björk: Archives isn’t related to her recent musical release, Vulnicura, which itself is conspicuously absent from the beautiful chronology draped across the cover of the Introduction.
The confusion starts on first encounter. It’s not really a book, but a set of five separate books and a perforated sticker set (without any glue) housed in a rigid slipcase. In essence, Archives is a collection of original writings by some of Björk’s friends and collaborators. Put together by MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach who writes the introduction in book I, it continues with essays on Björk’s music career by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross and music professor Nicola Dibben in Books II and III. Book IV is an email exchange between the artist and academic and writer, Timothy Morton about his own participation in the catalogue – a nicely intimate and self-conscious touch.
Book V, the most substantial tome, is a Psychographic Journey Through the First Seven Albums of Björk by her long-time lyrical collaborator, Sjón. Then, as if to cleanse the intellectual palate/ease the brain-ache/appeal to the masses (delete as preferred), the ‘sticker set’ is a tear-out-and-lose collection of all her CD covers.
Design and layout by M/M (Paris) is nothing short of exquisite, and itself manages the confusion well, finding a delightful balance through a satisfying blend of quirky typography and elegant use of colour and space. The essays offer intriguing insights into the artist’s creative process from academic heavyweights given the space and freedom to flex their own intellectual muscle.
This literary tour-de-force is illustrated with a smorgasbord of familiar imagery from an impressive list of imagemakers: Nan Goldin, Jürgen Teller, Nick Knight et al. However nice it is to see all these images in one place, they don’t add much and reveal the uneasy tension at the heart of this book. I can see the editors’ challenge and their desire to widen its appeal beyond a dusty shelf in Printed Matter Inc. Though they avoided Björk-on-the-tour-bus pictures, the familiarity of the imagery undermines the writing’s authority.
With a relatively impenetrable text – this isn’t a book to read on the train – its physical qualities have to work hard at setting out its intentions and building the foundations of an emotional relationship. This isn’t love at first sight. Five-books-and-a-sticker-set-in-a-slipcase is beyond the ambition of most exhibition catalogues, but the finishes fall short of what you’d expect from a full-on artist’s monograph. The gloss laminated slipcase undermines some of the other nicer details like the lovely double-layer covers that hide the wire stitches of books I-IV. The non-sticky sticker set would have been so much better as a proper set of perforated stamps. Of course there were budget constraints and this is from a mainstream, not a specialist, publisher, but they’re a little too evident. It feels like the product of an uneasy truce between the art and music factions camped out in Thames & Hudson’s offices. It’s a pity nobody read Timothy Morton’s credit in Book IV that states his philosophy of non-human objects being “rich and alive and special as we humans think we are”.
No doubt, Björk fans will rush out and buy it, and, depending on its price, it will probably sell by the pallet-load at the MoMA. Maybe I’m being harsh, I’m sure its defenders would argue (and publishers hope) that it has dual appeal: to the art crowd and the music fan, but it feels it would be better if it were more ambitious, more intrinsically desirable and more, well, like Björk. It’s an important document of her work so far and its original content will make it count in years to come. It’s just a shame it isn’t as special as the work she is capable of. It feels like a missed opportunity to move Björk’s creative language into a different domain.
Perhaps the dissonance within this publication isn’t driven from within, but is a reflection of the dislocation between art and music that makes the transition from one to the other so rare. If that’s the case, the book is a more intriguing piece, but it’s hard to believe that’s the intention here. The commercial mechanics of music, to connect with a large number of people through an easily accessed medium, drives music to be the popular bit of our popular culture. Very different to the conventions of art that allow painters and sculptors to bare their souls for the satisfaction of a small number of privileged collectors while leaving museums and critics to popularise it for the rest of us.
Perhaps it’s all down to expectations – we’re justified in expecting something extraordinary from her, but perhaps we can’t ask too much from an exhibition catalogue. I just wish Björk: Archives were more certain of what it is. 1