The artist is present: Björk photographed in Sydney wearing a headpiece by James Merry, her co-creative director on Björk Digital
Credit: Santiago Felipe courtesy of Björk Digital
Björk is an artist who for many requires no introduction. Yet with each new stage of her career it becomes apparent that artist and audience must of necessity reacquaint themselves with the Icelandic auteur – or, as she phrases it in the first lines of the heart-wrenching Stonemilker, the opening track from 2015’s critically-acclaimed Vulnicura, we must “find our mutual coordinates.”  

Vulnicura is not only the singer’s ninth album but also the work that forms the core of Björk Digital, the headlining event of Sydney’s Vivid festival for 2016 and a world premiere within its own right. As a world first event, Björk Digital lives up to its stature as an immersive and interactive exhibition that not only stimulates the senses but incorporates virtual reality technology and dynamic digital experiences to create an experience that’s both wholly corporeal and entirely out-of-body at the same time.

A still from Stonemilker, a 360º music video directed by Andrew Thomas Huang and shot on location in the artist’s home country of Iceland
Credit: Andrew Thomas Huang courtesy of Björk Digital

Split into five sections and conducted as a guided tour in groups of 25, the exhibition begins with the 54 speaker presentation of the 12-minute split screen music video for Black Lake and finishes with a multi-media presentation of Biophilia, an educational app that’s now being harnessed by various governments to teach musicology in Scandinavian schools. Not so much a retrospective of the artist’s prolific and variegated career and more an embodiment of her passion for new forms of expression, Björk appeared in person at Carriageworks yesterday to speak at length on how Vulnicura found its natural home in the realm of virtual reality.

“[Virtual reality] captures intimacy so well. You can be even more intimate than you would in a live concert,” the artist observed, clad in flesh-coloured latex redolent of one of the installation’s striking videos, Mouth Mantra.

“It’s so penetrative, no wonder the porn industry has embrace it as much as it has! The 360º visual element is very extreme, like an opera, you can play with scale in the most theatrical way, more so than with film. I find pioneering this universe very exciting.”

A still from Mouth Mantra, directed by Jesse Kanda and shot using a custom built 3D camera in a 3D mould of Björk’s mouth: “It was Jesse’s sense of humour. I can’t take all the credit, but it is my mouth as you can tell from the shape of my teeth!”
Credit: Jesse Kanda courtesy of Björk Digital

Björk Digital also includes VR experiences of the above mentioned Mouth Mantra – a video filmed with custom made 3D cameras set inside a replica mould of the singer’s mouth – as well as the world premiere of the music video for Notget. Björk described the latter as the sonic equivalent of an “R&B finger song” – a flip off – to her ex-husband, the performance and visual artist Matthew Barney, from whom she separated. It was the dissolution of their marriage that inspired the writing of Vulnicura, a “heartbreak saga” which she considers her “first chronological album with a spine.”

As was the case with the exhibition at the time of its preview, Notget is not yet finished – a fact that hasn’t deterred Björk from debuting the work in Sydney.

“We thought let’s just be brave and show the work halfway through.”
It’s that fearlessness that has characterised much of the artist’s work to date, and inspired her to travel half way around the world to Sydney for the next unveiling in her iconic body of work.

“I asked [my team] to find a place on this earth who would be willing to take this risk for me to show these VR works and to DJ. That’s how I ended up with Vivid – for their foolhardiness.” It’s here that Björk will not exactly be performing her greatest hits live, but DJ-ing a selection of her favourite records over two nights in celebration of the exhibition opening.

Directed again by Andrew Thomas Huang and shot on an Icelandic volcano, Black Lake, seen above, is the 12-minute epic that opens Björk Digital using one metric tonne of speakers and two parallel video screens
Credit: Andrew Thomas Huang courtesy of Björk Digital

Their relationship would seem a natural fit, with both Vivid and Björk wholeheartedly embracing technology and pushing it to its limits – an approach she was quick to implore young artists to adopt.

“For artists to stick their heads in the ground means there won’t be works with soul. We should embrace it so we’re on the same level as the governments, and the armies, and Big Brother.

“Technology shakes you up and you have to go blindfolded into the unknown to discover not what you were 10 years ago but what you are now.” 
“I also think as a pop musician who is quite proud of making modern folk music that it’s important to use the same tools we use every day in our lives. It’s too easy to go back to the acoustic wooden things and close your eyes and think the world is evil, so I think this conversation should be ongoing.”

As Björk’s co-creative director James Merry – who made her astonishing gold headpiece – so succinctly put it, “Once you’ve got the virtual reality [headsets] on, that’s when the magic happens. That’s where the art is.”

That’s exactly where it is. It’s all around, or at least it will be all around at Carriageworks beginning Saturday June 4 from 10am and concluding at 6pm every night until June 17. Admission is free.

Tile image: Santiago Felipe courtesy of Björk Digital
Cover image: A still from Stonemilker, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang and courtesy of Björk Digital