On March 8, MoMA will launch an expansive midcareer retrospective that looks back on two decades of Björk’s visual work. This exhibit is but the latest evidence that Björk is one of the film world’s most innovative forces of nature—the Icelandic swanstress may only need one name, but her boundless creativity can hardly be confined to one medium.
Best known for her music, in which the eternal howl of her voice anchors peerlessly progressive uses of modern technology to an indivisible human core, Björk has supplemented each of her nine solo albums with an array of iconic music videos. In addition to being one of the first artists to meaningfully explore the aesthetic and semiotic value of CG and its relationship to the body, Björk has collaborated with the likes of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, pushing these directors toward their potential. She’s the first person of any kind to have an app inducted into MoMA’s permanent collection, and—as if that weren’t enough—she also starred in the best episode of Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast. Insanely, Björk’s contributions to the world of moving images are so immense that her landmark performance in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (for which she won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) is little more than a superfluous detail.
Follow along below as we count down Björk's 10 best music videos.
10. “Who Is It?” (Dir. Dawn Shadforth, 2004)
Medúlla, Björk’s sixth album, is famous for being almost entirely comprised of sounds produced by human vocal chords (and if you think that’s just a fancy way of saying “a cappella,” scroll down this list and listen to “Triumph of a Heart”). Fittingly, the music video for the record’s first single puts that idea front and center, Björk dancing around a vast field of volcanic ash while wearing a cylindrical dress that’s entirely covered in bells. Looking like a cross between a medieval knight and an ornamental beekeeper, she becomes a visual expression of how Medúlla repurposes the body as an instrument of infinite potential. Björk literally plays herself. And then she gets to hang out with two dogs, because why not.
9. “It’s Oh So Quiet” (Dir. Spike Jonze, 1995)
Almost certainly the least interesting song on Björk’s second solo album, Post, “It’s Oh So Quiet” has nevertheless become one of her most ubiquitous tracks because of the video Spike Jonze made for it. Björk has almost never been as emotionally broad as she sounds in this full-throated cover of a 1951 Betty Hutton B-side, and Jonze immediately connected the exuberance of her vocal performance with the all-singing, all-dancing splendor of Jacques Demy’s classic musicals (particularly Les Demoiselles de Rochefort). Like Demy, Jonze mines the magical from the mundane, transforming a drab auto shop into a location of euphoric release, complete with a full dance company, a Björk stunt-double doing a backflip, and dancing mailboxes that Jonze must have borrowed from Michel Gondry. But none of this would have worked without that final crane shot.
8. “Declare Independence” (Dir. Michel Gondry, 2007)
“Declare Independence” is a song typical of Volta, Björk’s weakest record, in that it paradoxically feels at once both physical and hollow. Be that as it may, anyone who’s seen the track performed live knows that Björk means every damn word of it, and Michel Gondry’s music video captures that feeling by making this feral call to arms the anthem that it always wanted to be. Hyperpolitical without beating you over the head about it, the pounding clip traces the relationship between art, protest and change, compactly collecting all of these parts into a single machine, the controls of which are up for grabs. The apparatus is a work of art unto itself, and the splash of green paint that nails the camera lens at the end is a perfect expression of the energy that it can produce.
7. “Cocoon” (Dir. Eiko Ishioka, 2001)
One of the reasons why Björk has become such a singular artist is that she genuinely recognizes the value of collaboration—the people she pulls into her ever-expanding orbit are alchemists, not employees. The fact that the late, legendary designer Eiko Ishioka (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) directed a music video would be exciting regardless of whom she worked with, but it’s not an accident that she worked with Björk, and it’s truly special to see what these two women created together. Inspired by one of the most bluntly erotic tracks from Vespertine, Björk’s most sensual album (her recent Vulnicura is all about breaking up with Matthew Barney, and Vespertine is all about having sex with him), the “Cocoon” video isolates one pale nude Björk from a line-up of clones, and then essentially sends her to orgasm as she describes a lover “sliding inside” of her. Spewing strands of red licorice from her nipples (probably a special effect, but with Björk you can never be sure), Björk twirls and shapes them until the candied rope forms a protective seal around her body. The last in a series of videos in which Björk contended with organic matter escaping from her skin, Ishioka’s video captured a feeling the singer had been chasing for years.
6. “Wanderlust” (Dir. Encyclopedia Pictura, 2007)
Probably one of the most work-intensive music videos ever made (and definitely one of the coolest), “Wanderlust” is staggering proof of how Björk’s creative restlessness empowers and motivates her collaborators. Given the technical insanity involved in making this thing (and the nine months it took to pull off), the musician placed a world of trust in the hands of Encyclopedia Pictura’s Sean Hellfritsch and Isaiah Saxon. The resulting video, which was made in 3-D, unfolds like a live-action Studio Ghibli film. If the song is about wanting to see more of the world, the video leaves ours behind entirely, transforming “Wanderlust” into a statement of its creator’s boundless imagination. Volta may not be Björk at her best, but watching this video was enough to make you glad she took the chance, and confident that she had lots of exciting things in store for the future.
5. “Pagan Poetry” (Dir. Nick Knight, 2001)
“Pagan Poetry” (or “The One Where Björk Has Ultrasound Sex and Pierces Her Nipples”) is a way-too-real visualization of how intensely she feels things. Björk is not a casual woman. Björk does not have the “So what are we?” conversation with you after three dates. When you make love to Björk, you damn well better be looking in her eyes. And—as her new album proves—should you dare to dump her, Björk will write the kind of songs about you that make Taylor Swift’s kiss-offs sound like Kidz Bop covers. So just remember, as you watch the lower half of Björk’s body sway in a beautiful Alexander McQueen dress while the upper half is chained together through all of its most delicate bits, that “Pagan Poetry” is her idea of a love song. And, should you be so brash as to doubt Björk’s dedication, know that she refused to use a body double. Director Nick Knight gave her a mini-DV camera and told her to “film your love life.” The footage in the video is what she brought back.
4. “Bachelorette” (Dir. Michel Gondry, 1997)
The most story-driven of Björk’s videos, “Bachelorette” is also the Michel Gondry-est of them all (and, considering that he’s collaborated with her seven times, there’s a lot of competition for that particular honor). A magnificent narrative short film that just happens to be set to music and sung through, the video ignores the fact that “Bachelorette” sounds like the greatest James Bond theme ever written and instead devotes itself to self-referentially exploring Björk’s celebrity and its collateral effects. A fable about a woman who finds a book in her garden that writes itself (she titles it “My Story”), “Bachelorette” uses all of Gondry’s favorite devices to blur the lines between Björk’s life and its representations, the director effectively sweding his star’s existence. Relying on a series of remarkable dioramas (that train!), Gondry empowers each piece of his set to transform from being something that’s part of the story into something that’s telling the story. Eventually, there are so many layers that Björk’s character is lost in the process, and she has to retreat from the theater of the city in order to regain herself.
3. “Big Time Sensuality” (Dir. Stéphane Sednaoui, 1993)
Shot on the cusp of her celebrity, “Big Time Sensuality” is the clip that cemented Björk’s stardom, and exploded Debut into more than just a critical darling. Based on one of those ingeniously simple concepts that form the bedrock of so many all-time music videos, “Big Time Sensuality” is essentially just five minutes of a young Björk dancing on the exposed back of a flatbed truck as it drives through Manhattan. Shot in stark black and white and elevated by the city’s indifference (this would never work so well in the Instagram age), the video anticipates the confrontational courage that has made Björk’s career just as exciting to watch as it has been to hear. Also, if you squint, you can practically see Luc Besson (who used “Venus as a Boy” in The Professional) getting the idea for The Fifth Element's Leeloo Dallas.
2. “Triumph of a Heart” (Dir. Spike Jonze, 2004)
Spike Jonze’s “Triumph of a Heart” may be at No. 2 on this list, but it sure feels like the greatest music video ever made while you’re watching it. Built upon the last track on Medúlla, it starts with Björk married to an emotionally neglectful cat who rocks a wifebeater better than anyone since Stanley Kowalski. Frustrated, Björk tears away from the remote Iceland house they share together and drives straight towards a wild night of drinking, human beatboxing, vandalism and low-key magic. All told, it feels like Jonze’s response to the karaoke set-piece at the heart of his ex-wife’s Lost in Translation. Eventually Björk goes home to her husband. They make up, they make out and then he grows six feet tall. The message is clear: Björk is an independent woman, but it’s always nice to have someone to dance with during breakfast.
1. “All Is Full of Love” (Dir. Chris Cunningham, 1997)
It doesn’t say much to call this one of the most iconic music videos ever made, because—given the relatively brief history of the format—that’s like saying, “This video matches the lofty heights of that little girl running around in the bee costume.” But the clip Björk developed with Chris Cunningham for the closing track of Homogenic, her greatest album, is the kind of work that doesn’t just define a medium, but also goes a long way towards justifying it. Based on a concept that Björk immediately called “perfect” before forcing Cunningham to start over, the video is best described as, um, robot sex.
Shot in 1997 and still looking like the future, “All is Full of Love” uses a more sensual cut of the song than the mix that’s on the album. It stars two milk-white robots being manufactured to do exactly one thing, the machines responsible for their creation continuing to tend to them as they make out in a power-draining montage of metallic caresses and reverse-speed cascades of android fluid. Cunningham’s Björk-bot and her partner essentially conduct a séance for the Ghost in the Shell—the video is so compelling because the synthetic sex sparks a genuine reaction, in turn casting doubt on the artifice of what we’re watching. Perhaps the video’s top YouTube comment said it best: “I got a boner and cried at the same time while the robots were kissing because the robots had a lot of passion.” Indeed.