The Story Behind Björk’s Blooming Iris Van Herpen Gown
May. 31, 2019
By: Jack Moss
The Shed is a new cultural hub on New York’s West Side, part of the block-spanning Hudson Yards, a vast shopping mall-cum-business park which opened in the city last month. In opposition to the motionless tower blocks around it, it moves: the outer shell expands and contracts on giant wheels, entirely transforming the shape and volume of the space. For the past weeks, Björk has performed Cornucopia inside the structure, an ambitious environmental fable played out to her songs, past and present.
It is easy to imagine that Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen – a longtime Björk collaborator, who also created Cornucopia’s final look – would appreciate the design of the building, envisioned by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group. Though made with the delicacy of a couturier’s hand, her collections are architectural in ambition, and can appear as if descended from the future, or a parallel universe: some float like apparitions around the body, others like mysterious creatures from the deep, each the result of extensive technological innovation (one collection saw her travel to CERN for research). Movement is key: “I’m always looking at the way the body moves and interacts with the space around it,” she tells AnOther over the phone from her Amsterdam studio.
Van Herpen and Björk first collaborated in 2011, the musician reaching out through her co-creative director James Merry after she had worn one of Van Herpen’s pieces for a photoshoot, and liked it. “Then she just asked me to make something for her album cover,” says Van Herpen. “It was really an honour, I had listened to her music since I was a kid. She’s just one of these really rare characters – there’s only one woman on this planet like her.” That album was Biophilia: on the cover she wears an aubergine leather dress by the designer, intricately laser-cut and edged with golden foil to “underscore the hypersensitivity of the body and to visualise this entanglement of sensory perceptions” (the dress itself was titled ‘Synesthesia’). They have worked together ever since.
The duo’s collaborations have been memorable, and typically esoteric: a sculptural dress, constructed in layer upon layer of transparent electric blue plastic, swirled into the shape of a shell for a 2012 tour; another, made for an appearance at Roskilde Festival in Denmark, appeared as if the musician had been consumed by a mass of black snakes. Each of these pieces seem entirely allied with Björk’s imagination, though each is also distinctly Van Herpen’s, as if working in a kind of symbiosis.
“I think we are both looking for a sense of freedom in the universe we create,” says Van Herpen. “We both have a really multi-disciplinary, multi-sensory approach, of mixing the senses of how you perceive a work of art. That’s what I’m always looking for. To be in the grey area.”
Cornucopia is perhaps Björk’s most ambitious project yet, seeing her collaborate with artists, musicians and designers from around the world, from Lucrecia Martel, the acclaimed Argentinian filmmaker who directs, to Tobias Gremmler, a digital artist. His graphics, which appear throughout, are perhaps the cornerstone of the performance – “I am sooo sublimely grateful for my 18 months of work with the incredibly talented @tobiasgremmler for Cornucopia,” Björk wrote on Instagram. “It has been a journey through abstract descriptions of tiny sections of songs, details and nuances, Skypes and texts and resting restless in the ambiguity of that meeting point between a song and a moving image.” Alongside Van Herpen, designer Olivier Rousteing of Balmain also created costumes; the Icelandic Hamrahlid Choir, flutists Viibra and musician serpentwithfeet all accompany Björk on stage.
Van Herpen’s involvement began in December, when Björk shared Gremmler’s early visuals with her. “She’s never really saying to somebody: ‘make this’. She gives a lot of freedom, and that’s what’s so beautiful about working with her,” the designer says. “We talked a lot: for the piece, I began by focusing on the hybrid approach of this performance, how it’s really about nature but also the future of nature. I wanted to have this expression of an explosion, there was so much thought and energy she put into the performance, and it was really a challenge to fit into one piece. It felt like we were making three.”
Named ‘Sphaera’ – ancient Greek for sphere, or globe – the resulting dress, worn for the show’s finale, expands around Björk like a blossoming orchid, the delicate ‘petals’ reflecting the work of light artist Nick Verstand. In it, Van Herpen imagines Björk to be “a bioluminescent creature”, a “future-orchid avatar”, the dress like an “aura”, its various parts moving in concert with the musician herself. “There is nothing more magical than seeing her in one of my pieces,” says Van Herpen.
The dress also speaks to a common misconception about the designer’s work: that it is strict and technological; that her studio operates more like a laboratory than a fashion studio, and is concerned only with the distant future, rather than the world around her. In fact, much of her work comes from nature, or the physical human body itself. “I’ve never really been able to be satisfied with drawing because it’s two-dimensional; I need to see movement and I need to drape directly on a body,” she says. The work itself always “comes back to the hybrid between the organic and nature, and the future of technological experiments”. Technology, then, is simply a means to make her ideas come to life: here, the petals were laser-cut, then 3D-layered on a lightweight hybrid of stainless steel and cotton.
Nature, technology, the future: they are all themes of Cornucopia, too. The future of the earth, imagined in sweeping visuals and a 360-degree soundscape, is played out like an expansive fairytale in the performance, which mostly draws on Björk’s most recent album, Utopia. Cornucopia, with its ambitious, mythic scope, says there can be hope – if only we can conceive a world beyond our own. “Imagine a future and be in it,” she sings on Future Forever. “Your past is on a loop, turn it off / See this possible future and be in it.”
A more direct missive comes from environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who appears in a video at the end of the show. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope,” goes her rally cry. “If the solutions in this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.”
Cornucopia runs at The Shed, New York until June 1, 2019.