Björk’s Cornucopia is being billed as her “most elaborate staged concert to date.” It lives up to the tagline, and then some.
The site-specific project takes place at the Shed, a cavernous performance complex in New York’s brand spanking new Hudson Yards. The luxury development, which was partially funded by the city under Mayor Bloomberg for $50 million, has drawn ire for resembling a gated community and playground for the rich. It’s made up of towering condos and office buildings, an adjacent mall featuring mostly designer fashion brands, and its centerpiece is an interactive (ie: very Instagrammable) “sculpture” called the Vessel. The Shed is certainly its most culturally significant attraction, and though it remains to be seen whether it will become an institution, it is difficult to imagine Cornucopia taking place, to full-effect, at any other venue. The space itself is essentially a massive rectangular box with seating that can be rearranged to suit different performances, like bleachers in a high school gymnasium.
As vast as the space is, Cornucopia feels intimate. Björk tapped renowned Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel to direct, and the result is a multimedia performance that brings her 2017 album, Utopia, to life. This is Martel’s New York debut and first time directing a theatrical show, and she was tasked with bringing Björk’s vision to the stage, which one can imagine is probably exceedingly difficult.
In an interview with The New York Times, Martel said that she thought the performance could end up being a “disaster,” because on paper, it sounds like one: Björk is joined onstage by the 50-piece Icelandic Hamrahlíð Choir (the youth choir of which she was once a member), the Icelandic flute septet known as Viibra who double as backup dancers, layers of translucent curtains upon which are animated projections by Tobias Gremmler, 360-degree sound, a complex lighting system, a custom-made reverb chamber, various percussion instruments from all over the world, some of which are played only once, and a guest appearance from avant-R&B singer Serpentwithfeet during the rendition of “Blissing Me.” When the show’s centerpiece, “Body Memory,” begins, snow falls from the ceiling, and two new instruments are introduced: suspended organ pipes designed to look like canons, and a circular flute.
And then there’s Björk, who sings live as if all of the elements are welling up inside of her and she needs to expunge them lest she combust. She wears costumes designed by Olivier Rousteing, who is the creative director of French fashion house Balmain, and a headpiece/mask by James Merry. Her accompanying musicians are dressed as nymphs and they flit between different sections of the stage, which is ribbed like mycelium. Though they do most of Utopia, Björk broke out older songs like “Venus As A Boy,” “Human Behavior,” and “Hidden Place,” all of which featured new arrangements to suit the flute-driven narrative of her most recent album. (Björk is wild for the flute right now; when she introduced Viibra at the end of the show she exclaimed, “Flutes RULE!,” and threw up the sign of the horns.)
In the first half of the show, Björk lays out Utopia’s thesis across the curtained screens, urging the audience to: “Imagine a future. Be in it.” This particular utopian vision is a matriarchy free of capitalist values that threaten the future — represented by the youth choir — as well as our fragile ecosystem. It echoes some of the themes Björk addressed on 2011’s Biophilia, which wrought her last extensive tour as well as an educational project. Cornucopia’s formal run, pre-encore, closes with “Tabula Rasa,” a song that is initially directed at her daughter, who she wishes a life “immersed in grace and dignity.” Midway through, the perspective shifts, and Björk becomes a matriarch to all as she sings that it is time “for us women to rise and not just take it lying down/ It is time/ The world is listening.”
At the conclusion, Björk thanked the audience and shuffled offstage. The room went dark for a few minutes, and then the audience was treated to a message from Greta Thunberg, the teen Swedish activist who has led global student protests for climate justice. She speaks directly to the crowd, urging adults in the room to take responsibility for her future and for the future of children everywhere. Her message is explicitly anti-capitalist: “It is the suffering of many who pay for the luxuries of the few.” The irony of hearing those words in Hudson Yards, of all places, wasn’t lost on me, but I found the massive projection of Thunberg’s youthful face to be affecting. Here is a real-world example of someone who is trying, against all odds, to make another future possible. Björk’s work is fantasy, Thunberg’s is based in harsh reality, and the intersection of the two grounded Cornucopia in the now.