Modern Things

Left: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Right: Björk, Markús Thór Andrésson, and Ragnar Kjartansson. (Photos: Shaun Mader)

BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR, elfin pop savant and, with the recent release of her multimedia project Biophilia, Iceland’s leading iPad bore, may be a perky charmer, but her team is as chilly as their employer’s home. Asking this aloof trio whether photography was permitted at the singer-songwriter’s Thursday afternoon Armory Show Open Forum Panel with performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson (part of a slew of Scandinavian-focused talks at the fair), I received the decision, delivered with relish: “You know what? No.” Video was verboten too, as were interviews, recording, eating, drinking, impertinence… Oh, and if you didn’t have a white wristband, forget about getting in anyway.

Once inside, of course, everyone snapped blithely away as Björk, Kjartansson, and moderator Markús Thór Andrésson chatted among themselves onstage. The clean-cut guys wore sensible jackets; our heroine rocked a dark red velvet dress with mystic amulet and lime-green veil. In other words: business as usual. The topic was “accumulation and regeneration,” to which a jovially improvising Andrésson added “interaction and repetition and…united nations” before exhorting the assembled to “be in the here and now!” Kicking off by reflecting on her recent experience of performing in a format closer to a theatrical residency than a concert, Björk, rolling her rs magnificently, mourned “the old rrrrrock-’n’-rrrrroller in me” but expressed appreciation for new and more varied audience reactions (perhaps not such a surprising effect when shifting venues from Roseland to the New York Hall of Science).

Kjartansson, who performed the final aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Abrons Arts Center for twelve hours straight as his contribution to last year’s Performa festival, characterized his own experience as quasi-spiritual: “It was like a humanistic religious experiment,” he enthused, “and Mozart makes a pretty good high priest.” Asked about the utility of repetition, he joked: “We aim for the same, always, because then it becomes spiritual. That’s the cheap trick of religion!” Admitting to the escapist kick of performing, he continued with a more altruistic-sounding “You have to give to receive—that’s what we do in show biz!” before turning to Björk and adding “You scream your lungs out!” “Tell me about it,” she sighed.

Casting Björk as “the futurist” and Kjartansson—his groans notwithstanding—as “the nostalgist,” Andrésson lauded both artists’ ability to engage with contemporary culture—his beloved “here and now.” “I’m a history buff,” Kjartansson conceded, “but I find culture so fascinating…” He trailed off, realizing how vague this must sound. “Uh, where am I going? Culture is fascinating… I’m on a roll!” By now all three speakers had gone from relaxed to chummy to positively silly. Kjartansson pulled out another plum: “It’s OK to use stuff but not to steal stuff,” he opined, seemingly expecting a rapturous response. The crowd, fans of Abbie Hoffman, perhaps, or simply raised on appropriation, were nonplussed. Björk’s subsequent non sequitur characterization of her colleague as “a radical spring-cleaningist,” though clearly well intentioned, didn’t help.

Björk, of course, is a lover of such exotic imagery, especially when it involves the wonders of nature, and chose this moment to launch into an extended paean to explosions and eruptions and volcanoes and Mars and Jupiter and… “That’s some hard-core shit!” she piped breathlessly, moving on to describe the effect on one’s worldview of observing—or imagining observing—the earth from space. “I’m like Kofi Annan!” she concluded. If being a grown-up Björk looks and sounds like fun, one can only imagine what larks a junior Björk must have had. “My journey to school was a half-hour walk through fossils,” she revealed. “We live in Iceland,” explained Kjartansson, “where there’s a lot of nature. But, really, everything is nature.”

The discussion carried on in much the same vein, with Björk providing the occasional insight into her personality as a collaborator (“When it comes to music, I’m a tyrant, I’m really bossy. You should see me, it’s really bad!”) and Kjartansson casting various pearls of wisdom (“I think we all have a teacher and a pupil inside of us and we just need to introduce them to one another”), until it emerged that they were actually related in some way, and had shared an early mentor, a “very grand character” who plied them with sherry as schoolkids and taught them how to sing. Kjartansson: “She lived in our basement and she was the twentieth century, basically. She would tell me about her friends Messiaen and Kokoschka. And she had an ugly voice, but in a beautiful way.”

Asked, with a giggle, for “very serious and intellectual questions only, please,” the crowd took Andrésson’s request earnestly, going so far as to read out lengthy quotes and ask the speakers expectantly whether they, too, had achieved “the loss of the ego and the abandonment of the self.” Björk discussed a recent interest—“I’ve been researching shamanism, trying to get past the New Age shit”—until another questioner brought things crashing down to earth in embarrassing fashion. “Could you sing for us,” she wheedled, “pleeeease?” Björk just giggled and pointed to Kjartansson: “He knows how to yodel!” But there was to be no singing or yodeling, and the event came to a close with a final silly question—“Are we past cool?”—and a final silly answer from the irrepressible Kjartansson—“I think art has always been about being cool…. Famous last words.”