The Icelandic songstress joins forces with her boyfriend, Matthew Barney. So what’s their film about? Sculpture, geishas, and whales.
It’s an ashen, cold day in Iceland’s ashen, cold capital. From the Hallgrímskirkja church, narrow streets snake down in all directions, the occasional LEGO-bright rooftop breaking up the muted tones of Reykjavík. I scurry over to the restaurant Apótek, but when I arrive, it’s closed—although I can see Björk inside, sitting at her chosen table.
The artist perpetually described as “elfin” has taken a quick break from recording—and from looking after her 3-year-old daughter, Isadora—to have some coffee and talk about her first collaboration with her romantic partner of five years, acclaimed artist Matthew Barney: a film for which Björk wrote the soundtrack.
It’s a project that, like many of the works of these two protean experimental artists, is so avant-garde as to risk ridiculousness when summarized. But let’s give it a try: Filmed on location in Nagasaki Bay onboard the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru, Drawing Restraint 9 combines sculpture, music, architecture, and performance to explore the relationship between resistance and creativity. Central to the project is a vast, liquid “sculpture” of a Vaseline-like substance called the Field, suggestive of whale fat. As the film unfolds, with a lingering attention to aesthetics that will be familiar to viewers of Barney’s famous Cremaster Cycle, the substance shifts, disintegrates, and ruptures; the changes in its physical form sublimate the movements of the Guests—Barney and Björk—who arrive on the ship to be groomed and dressed by geishas.
Which all sounds insane but is in fact spectacular. Though the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, it starts touring the world in 2006, arriving in New York in April. It was, however, recently screened in Reykjavík for friends and family of the couple. So how did Björk explain it to her invited audience? “I can tell you what I told my grandmother and my friends who are just like electricians or plumbers, if that helps?” she offers, laughing. “First of all, I tell them it’s a movie with no dialogue, let’s just get that straight. It’s a movie about sculpture, you know?. . . You have to look at it as a piece of art instead of comparing it to a Hollywood blockbuster.”
As she excitedly describes their reactions (it went over better with the plumbers than the musicians, she notes), the Apótek staff neaten up around us with feigned obliviousness to our presence. And though over the course of our conversation Björk explains that she has been speaking only Icelandic for two weeks—and cites the fact that she hasn’t had any coffee as an explanation for any nonsensical answers she may be giving—she is, in fact, funny and articulate. However, she is not the most relaxed conversationalist: As she speaks, Björk never breaks eye contact, and her gesticulations cause the mane of pony’s hair attached to the collar of her calf-length cobalt-blue sweater to swing like a metronome.
Despite long lapses between her productions, creativity will always be the center of her life, she explains. “If I don’t write songs, then I’m fucked, you know?” Björk says. “I can’t just move to the Bahamas. I need that part of me for the rest of me to function.”
Instead of lounging on a sandy beach, Björk and Barney split their time between Iceland and New York, where Barney has an apartment downtown and Björk owns a house upstate “in the forest, with the Bambis.” It’s a bi-continental lifestyle that works nicely with Björk’s seasonal preferences. In December and January, she explains, “it’s colder in Manhattan than in Iceland, and the Christmasy thing is a bit insane! In Iceland, it’s like a winter wonderland, and there’s only light for one hour a day, it’s about family and drinking hot chocolate with cognac in it and cuddling.” (Summer in New York is also out: “I think it should be illegal to be in Manhattan in August.”)
Like their cities, Björk, the emotional extremist, and Barney, the king of abstractions, might seem an odd match. But it’s a fruitful one: Björk’s collaboration with Barney is a fascinating departure for an artist who only last year released her most personal album to date, Medúlla—an album recorded almost entirely a cappella while she was pregnant.
The new soundtrack combines cutting-edge technology with ancient instruments. “It isn’t like, ‘Hello, this is me!’ ” she says, leaning forward so her face is inches from mine. “It’s music that is all around you, and I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Then there’s working with Barney—a radical turnabout after her famously difficult experience with director Lars Von Trier, whose 2000 Dancer in the Dark was the last film in which she appeared. “I couldn’t even compare it,” she explains. “Because of how Matthew uses character, it’s more like sculpture. Me and Matthew actually sculpt each other in the film, we remove each other’s legs [with flensing knives at the film’s climax] and we end up swimming after the ship as two whales. It’s not acting like Dustin Hoffman does.”
I suggest to Björk that it’s surprising it took five years for her and Barney to work together—after all, she’s famous for collaborations with romantic partners like electronic-music artists Tricky, Howie B, and Goldie. “Actually, when we met that was one of the first things we said to each other: ‘Let’s not work together,’ ” says Björk, taking a sip of milky coffee. “ ‘Fuck that. Let’s just enjoy the other stuff.’ ” Though she has a reputation for “working with 50,000 people,” she jokes, these collaborations have grown out of extended friendships. “It’s about what’s between you, not two separate egos.”
The short deadlines imposed by working on Barney’s film were intimidating, she says, “but it turned out to actually be healthy for me to not be so decadent.” And the result doesn’t sound hurried at all—it sounds languorous. One entire suite features the ancient Japanese instrument the sho, an element Björk added after she Googled around, searching for “something about this project I was ignorant of.”
“I just took the train out to Montauk on my own and sat there in a hotel and wrote the sho pieces in the space of a week,” Björk says. She then recruited the instrument’s virtuoso, Mayumi Miyata, to perform them. “I listened to everything she had done, and it encouraged me to do the opposite,” she explains. “I was wary of the Japanese stereotypes, and I didn’t want it to sound like some New Age meditation CD.”
Was it hard to write music for an instrument she hadn’t heard of a month previously? She answers simply, “Challenging.”
“I want closeness, and I want contact,” she explains. “I want a middle. And that was one of the fun things about doing this project: There is no middle. I’m a ‘narrative, narrative, narrative’ kind of character, and Matthew is a ‘no narrative, no narrative, no narrative’ kind of person. I knew from the beginning that we had opposite views, and the challenge was to unite them and prove that they’re the same thing.”