Björk in 3Arena, Dublin, on Thursday 28th November 2019
In recent years, Dublin has hosted a handful artists whose audio-visual pieces have questioned what a live gig is, should be and can be. David Byrne’s performance in the same venue last year was a striking blend of music and dance, theatre and poetry, the sublime and the absurd. St. Vincent, taking her cue from Byrne’s career, continued to evolve her own singular stage routine, surgical in precision and execution. Even Roger Waters continued to push the boundaries of what a concert can achieve, leaning heavily on the visual aspects of his performance to hammer home his anti-fascism polemic. In these shows, spontaneity was replaced by choreography without sacrificing heart or art.
Born from Björk’s 2017 ‘Utopia’ album, the ‘Cornucopia’ stage show is one more instance of a performer challenging preconceptions of what can be achieved in a live setting, aurally and visually. Björk has always been a progressive artist, and with the slew of collaborators that have brought this tour to fruition – musicians, costume designers, digital artists – she has reimagined her own music and persona, driving home an overarching theme of the harsh realities of climate change.
After a twenty minute choral lead-in from the 18-strong Icelandic Hamrahlid Choir, an avatar of the singer appears on a grand scale on the floral screen that dominates the stage. Visuals fire off – plants become animals that become sea creatures, a startling re-imagining of flora and fauna where nothing is as it seems.
Tobias Gremmler’s visuals evoke the deepest oceans and the darkest Lovecraftian cosmos, what lies beneath and beyond. Other visual mutations and inversions of the human form recall the body horror of David Cronenberg or Shinya Tsukamoto, but the effect here is less parasitic than symbiotic. During Pagan Poetry, a stunning visual sees Björk’s face merge with a kind of tentacled anemone, until they become one entity delivering the vocal.
A translucent veil glides across the stage as Claimstaker begins, and the slinky tunnelling effect is mesmerising; at once astronomical and anatomical – a wormhole through space and time, a synapse firing signals. Directed by Argentinian film director Lucrecia Martel, the entire set piece – the sentient participants, the stage props, the complete jigsaw – is fluid and largely seamless.
Two large industrial sub-woofer pipes emerge, suspended from the ceiling above the audience before Body Memory. Backed by the choir, all in white, Björk sings from within a circular, conical scaffold that turns out to be one of many curious instruments we experience tonight – a four-person flute played by four musicians crouched at her feet. Spectral figures dance behind the screens at either side of the choir onstage, and it’s almost impossible to decipher if they’re real or simply another visual projection.
Visuals continually play tricks on the mind and eye. Anthropomorphic figures suddenly emerge from the darkness then fizzle into the ether just as quickly, like painkillers dissolving in water. A shoal of fish becomes a multitude of bristling petals. And then, from the surrealism and idealism of this utopia so successfully conjured, comes a stark message – Swedish environmentalist Greta Thundberg addresses the audience with a warning of what we stand to lose.
Immersed in all this pageantry are Björk’s songs, brought to a new dimension by her band, and most notably, the troupe of costumed flautists (“Flutes rock!”). Venus As A Boy is performed with a single flute and vocal, the singer still exploring the song’s possibilities some 26 years after its composition. With ‘Cornucopia’, she continues to explore the intricacies of performance art; an immersive onslaught of form, fantasy and fatalism.