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In “Björk Digital”, you become the singer's ex-lover – and there's no looking away

Björk's new experiment takes music of claustrophobic unhappiness and shifts it into a relentless, dynamic world.

The virtual-reality headset, like the suitcase, has been surprisingly slow to evolve. Björk’s 3D show at Somerset House is experienced, as it might have been in 1994, through a mini-computer strapped to the head: visual effects are enhanced by turning one’s neck from left to right, resulting, for the unlucky, in what is known in the business as virtual-reality sickness. The industry has been threatening 3D music for years, predicting a new kind of intense, interactive experience between you and your idol. I recently stood on a VR stage in place of the guitarist in a leading rock band. One day, you will play producer and sit behind a VR mixing desk, barking at Elvis to do another take. On that day, I don’t doubt that the headset will still slide off your face like a waterlogged frog mask. At Somerset House, you are told to sit down before putting it on, lest you become disorientated and fall over.

“Björk Digital” is the latest experiment in the “visual album”, comprised of songs from 2015’s Vulnicura. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s Endless were cryptic multimedia packages designed to dominate online debate: artists are constantly testing out ways to extend the period during which people are talking about their new record, which currently stands at about one day.

In Björk’s case, the extended life allowed by a visual album has an aesthetic meaning, too. Vulnicura was her break-up record (written after her split from her ex-partner Matthew Barney). At the time, people were shocked by its bleeding heart (“I am one wound, my pulsating body/Suffering be”), which was laid open on a landscape of relentless and tormented strings. “The story is mainly just me moaning, and the instrumentation is always the same,” she said recently, appearing (of course) as a ­virtual-reality avatar. “Björk Digital” takes music of claustrophobic unhappiness and shifts it into a dynamic world.

Passing from room to room and putting on new headsets (totally unnecessary – you could watch the whole thing on one), you get a personal audience with a series of increasingly confrontational and unnerving “Björks”. On a blackened Icelandic beach (in the song “Stonemilker”), she keeps disappearing playfully behind your back. In “Quicksand”, she forms and explodes herself in a firmament of sparks. I took a gulp of fresh air and moved my head around to see what else was going on in the edges of the scene. If you look directly down, you find yourself hovering, bodiless, over a screaming black hole. For the final 3D song, “Notget”, Björk’s avatar resembles an ancient Thai devil. It has no regard for personal space, hovering kissably close before swelling into a colossal, feminine figure and overwhelming you with its bosoms (3D porn is a hot area for software developers).

The break-up album, like the letter written in despair to the ex-lover, is the last appeal to a person who has stopped listening. In “Björk Digital”, you become the ex-lover, the one-on-one intimacy forcing you to ­engage. It does what other “visual albums” have so far failed to do, making the meaning of the music more explicit rather than obscuring it. The whole thing is strangely simple. It reminded me of the intense connection you had to pop promo videos years ago, when you waited all week to see them on ITV’s Chart Show and watched them without two-screening.

As if to make this point, the exhibition ends with a conventional 2D screen showing all Björk’s fab videos from the Nineties onwards – the Alexander McQueen one with the crocodile (“Alarm Call”) or Chris Cunningham’s mesmerising “All Is Full of Love”, where you recognise her in the figure of an amorous crash-test dummy. “Björk Digital” doesn’t feel any more sophisticated than these – it’s just another experiment, and most of Björk’s experiments go right. Shame she didn’t design a headset.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game