MoMA’s Björk Disaster

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Björk offers an experience of music in many layers, with instruments, a theatrical presentation, an immersive sound experience, an audio guide, and related visualizations from photography and music videos to new media works. The exhibition draws from more than 20 years of the artist's career. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Without quite meaning to, I seem to have prereviewed the Museum of Modern Art's current Björk show. I greeted its June announcement with dismay, writing, “Today the Museum of Modern Art crawled deeper into cravenness, announcing the upcoming 'full-scale retrospective' of Björk. Don’t get me wrong: I love Björk and her fabulous amaranth persona, her videos, and her music.” I wrote then that all belong in a museum, but added, "MoMA [is] destroying its credibility ... in its self-suicidal slide into a box-office-driven carnival ... Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass vitrine, Queen Marina staring at smitten viewers in the atrium, the trashy Tim Burton show, last season's gee-whiz Rain Room, and of course the wrecking ball Diller Scofidio + Renfro is about to swing." What made me know back then that the Björk show would likely be another embarrassing pop-programming nadir in a string of embarrassing pop-programming nadirs was the way MoMA — more than any major museum in the world — has gravitated to spectacle almost for its own sake. At the same time, the museum is unable to even commit to going all the way with a show like this by giving it a whole floor, or PS1, or multiple galleries in MoMA itself. By now all of these shows feel like the museum trying to boost its numbers, pandering, and at sea. One other thing raised a big red flag: Its curator being Biesenbach, I reasoned that his fan heart was sure to get in the way of this being done in an erudite, historically contexualizing way, placing the art and the artist in her own time. Back in June, I grumbled about Biesenbach being "predictable" and a "showman," then whined about MoMA being unable to think of any other living or dead artist for such a show.

I wanted to be surprised and proven wrong about the Björk show. Alas, I haven't been. Housed in the museum's atrium in a two-story, black-painted wooden-pavilion thing, you wind through lines (very, very long lines), reading handwritten lyrics in books encased in vitrines, hearing snippets of music, and then donning a headset that leads you through a 40-minute tour of the second floor, album by album. It’s a discombobulated mess. The spoken narrative, written by Icelandic poet Sjón and read by actor Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, is a pretty silly fable about a "young girl" who ventures into "kingdoms." As you walk, signals tell the headset that you've moved on, and it begins playing the next chapter of the tale. All the while, video clips play here and there, and we look into alcoves containing some of the fantastic costumes and paraphernalia used in some of the music videos, including those wooly yak-creatures. The halls, where you will spend the vast bulk of your time, are lined with pictures from the albums. There is one pillow-laden theater that screens Björk’s music videos. In another, a ten-minute work commissioned by MoMA is displayed. Unfortunately, this work is not yet up to museum or gallery standards. Biesenbach is no idiot, but the show is "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Even, I venture, for fans.

I don't think I’m just being a geezer. As I said, museums and pop culture are fine together. And old hat by now. (In May Biesenbach will do a Yoko Ono show.) But this bacchanal is not yet even open to the public, and critics half my age have already blasted it. The Guardian's excellent Jason Farago rightly called it "unambitious," saying that it had "definitely, definitely, definitely no logic" and is a combination of Madame Tussaud's meets the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ArtNet News critic Ben Davis,* who's usually quite measured when unpacking why he doesn't like exhibitions, unloaded, "the show is bad, really bad ... MoMA has laid a colossal egg." ArtNews' Michael Miller opined that the show was "a waste of time," and called an interview between MoMA Director Glen Lowry and Biesenbach "a Laurel and Hardy routine," and finished writing something that many say when speaking about MoMA: "I felt sad and embarrassed leaving the museum." 

That sadness has mushroomed into dejection of late. Since 2004, when it reopened in its bland new Taniguchi building, many art-world conversations about New York museums circle back to and then plunge into people's pain, anger, sadness, and frustration about the Museum of Modern Art. On the one hand, the museum has the greatest collection of modern art on Earth. It always will. Yet not only is most of this collection permanently held captive in storage, what little of it is on view is seen in perhaps the most unpleasant viewing conditions in any major museum in the world — in far too few galleries that are far too small and poorly designed. Then there's the museum's twisted bid to transform itself into something like a multiplex mall, specializing in whiz-bang pop-cultural events. Now comes a Diller Scofidio + Renfro expansion plan meant to fix the problems it created in 2004, which looks much more likely to exacerbate them.

And notwithstanding some truly excellent revolving exhibitions, the museum is now mainly defined by Lowry and Biesenbach’s funhouse exhibitions and events, which admittedly pack the rafters with paid ticket-holders. If there's a silver lining to the Björk show, it's that the two-story pavilion construction points directly at another way (other than transforming the entire adjacent and contiguous education building into gallery space) to gain space for the permanent collection: permanently build out the atrium into five floors of gallery space for the collection. But MoMA would rather crazily raise money, build, and think about art and consequences later.

The Björk show is another self-inflicted wound in the most important institution to Modernism on Earth. Longtime MoMA watchers find it mysterious that Lowry, dedicated, energetic, and well-intentioned as he is, has not been let go by the trustees. He oversaw one failed expansion. Why allow even a chance at another?  The damage done so far and being done again with this show is extensive enough that even with its regular great temporary historical shows, MoMA's credibility is listing. Badly. As for Biesenbach, I admire his passion and he sees many more shows than most curators in positions like his. But consider the power implied in the dual title bestowed on him by Lowry: director of MoMA PS1 and chief curator at large at MoMA. He runs both ships. Whatever else the board has in mind to fix this mess, perhaps it's time to make Biesenbach just the director of MoMA PS1. I bet he could have done a great Björk show there. 

*This post has been corrected to show that Ben Davis is the critic for ArtNet News, not ArtNews.