In Review: Björk Digital at Somerset House

 

After stepping into the musicians’ immersive exhibition on a surprisingly quiet Tuesday afternoon, this is what we discovered.

 

Firstly, ‘cool’ people looooove Björk.

Whether you are a fan or not, if you enjoy contemporary art and like to show-off by discussing it, this exhibition is not to be missed. Björk is renowned as a 360° artist: a musician, singer, visual artist, performer, fashion icon and technology explorer. So, like everything connected to her, this exhibition combines cinema, music, costume, makeup and all inspiring things at once. Regardless of your appreciation levels of her music, the show will be a point of discussion for those in the know, so make sure you check it out before 23rd October.

Secondly, Björk is eternally contemporary.

As you would expect, she sets standards for others. Björk Digital is an experience, more than it is an exhibition. It is a seven step journey which includes Virtual Reality (VR), cinema, multiple speaker placement and bespoke instrumental software that you can play via an iPad. However, despite the title, we felt that technology was not the protagonist. The show appeared to connect to the ‘genre-less’ nature of Björk as an artist, regardless of the specific technology used. Björk has always been ‘digital’ and makes use of all available high and low tech to illustrate her complex narratives. And to be frank, her evergreen originality casts a great shadow, when compared to the currently flat and X-Factor-injected contemporary music industry. The videos from the 90s... oh man, they still rock hard! If you are an 80s kid like me, you will probably find yourself unprepared and slightly shocked - her work does not age and feels contemporary decades later, so to see her age in the most recent videos feels like a trick of the eye. 

Lastly, you will trip through other worlds, but not because of the VR headsets.

One thing was clear, it is Björk as an artist who takes your mind and imagination to unknown places; it is her compelling stage presence, the crazy costumes and transformations, her clever use of special effects and mesmerising visual narratives. Her music and art is a lot to take in, so packed with layers of details and so restless in its evolution. But the use of technology seemed more successful when it became invisible. 
For instance, the first room features Black Lake, a dark empty space in-between two screens, surrounded by speakers. The audience is situated in the space between the screens, looking alternatively at each one as they project two slightly different versions of the song's video. The sound system is excellent and the vibrations can be felt in your gut, taking the experience to another level where sound and visuals compliment one another. Similarly, in the final room, sits a cinema screening 2 hours’ worth of Björk's videos. The sound travels across the floor and walls where the audience lays to enjoy the show. Each video transports you to another world, making present time stand still.

But out of the seven rooms, the four dedicated to VR, where visitors experience 360° music videos from her latest album Vulnicura, did not feel as engaging. Perhaps, this is due to high expectations being set because of the use of a highly anticipated technology that is said to deliver an immersive experience. But in honesty, we struggled to feel immersed there. The four videos are as engaging as they are disturbing (as is all of Björk’s work), so no wonder a seven-minute trip into her mouth for Mouth Mantra felt intense and tiring. Beyond that, the weight of the headset is annoying, the freedom of exploration is limited by a cable, your human eyes cannot move to the degree angle of the headset (so you are bound to look at just one particular direction at a time anyway), the music pumps into your ears with excellent acoustic quality, but it is lacking the sensory touch element. 

Undoubtedly, the experience felt is personal. As a musician and music freak, at one point I found myself wanting to escape the VR, to close my eyes, to allow her music to create those landscapes in my imagination that might not be as cutting-edge, but are places where I have complete freedom to wonder. The ‘immersiveness’ of VR felt more like a cage to me; no matter what, it is not unique, it is not really personal but it is isolating and you do not connect with the artist as you would at a concert. Surely the hardware and software quality of headsets will improve immensely down the line, probably killing the distractions that currently impede a truly immersive experience. As of today, it felt more like a gimmick, unable to truly provide an extra layer to the Björk experience, which in itself proved fulfilling and rewarding as ever.