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Unhuman Nature: James Merry and Björk’s super-natural collaboration on Utopia

Photography by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones


Björk has long occupied that sweet spot between the organic and technologic. As far-out as her adventures into breakbeats, apps, and virtual reality may get, the Icelandic musician remains essentially tethered to nature—its sounds, forms, and hues. Even the most cursory journey through her oeuvre offers views both biotic and machine-made. 1997’s 
Homogenic juxtaposed electronic beats against string arrangements; 2001’s Vespertine, dubbed her “laptop album,” employed acoustic instruments such as the harp and clavichord, chosen for their sounds that won’t diminish when played on an mp3; and 2015’s Biophilia, delved into the relationship between nature (with songs like “Moon” and “Thunderbolt”) and technology (each song could also be downloaded as an app), coinciding with its maker’s increased activism in preserving Iceland’s natural resources.

Indeed, her Icelandic roots often show: “In Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers,” she told Dutch Magazine Oor in 1997, upon the release of Homogenic. “But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech.” This is also the same woman who, while describing an Icelandic landscape—illuminated by the northern lights and “with the lava fields cackling below”—designated it “really techno.”

Since Biophilia, Björk’s nature-centricity has formed a growing part of her visual aesthetic—worn on her sleeves and in particular, her face. Key to that is her working relationship with Reykjavík and New York-based embroidery artist James Merry, the man responsible for the headpieces and masks she donned to tour 2015’s Vulnicura and to dress up last year’s Utopia.

And she couldn’t have picked a finer, more sympathetic collaborator: Merry’s work mines the fluid lines of nature, often synthesizing them with the sinewy articulation of the human body to produce impossible incarnations. For one, his 2012 book, Anatomies, featured such unearthly illustrations as magnolias growing out of a human heart, a fuschia from a tear duct. “I was fascinated by that overlap between botanical and anatomical,” he’s said. “It’s always such a lush place, where two seemingly different worlds can overlap.”

Utopia by Björk, 2017, face piece by James Merry, photography by Jesse Kanda.

His world, too, overlapped perfectly with Björk’s with the release of Utopia. While the earlier masks he hand-embroidered for her borrowed from animals forms (as on the “Moth” and “Medusa” headpieces), his latest silicone-sculpted pieces head into “floral, anatomical territory; something orchid-like,” he said, “alien, sexual.” Exactly: the album’s cover, photographed by Jesse Kanda, featured such a silicone and pearl mask with folds and contours emulating both floral and female anatomy. The overall effect is beautifully eerie—our Björk as an unnatural being built with natural parts.  

Iterations of these face pieces also show up in the videos for “Utopia,” which saw Björk frolicking in an alien-scape in futuristic woodland sylph mode, and “The Gate,” in which she transformed into some manner of holographic fairy, her mien framed with drooping petals. The latter video’s featured headpiece, explained James, “was an attempt to mimic that sort of winding intertwined energy crowning the head, but crossed with a white lotus-type lightness, like some sort of alien orchid.”

Video for “Utopia” by Björk, 2017, directed by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.
Video for “The Gate” by Björk, 2017, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang.

More silicone-made orchid forms sprang up across Utopia’s promotional material: on the leafy creation sprouting off Björk’s face on the video announcement of the album release, on the overgrown, filament-dotted “Ghost Orchid,” and on the intricate “Mouth Orchid,” pictured on the cover of W Magazine’s October 2017 edition, which flowers out of her mouth. However much these figures have been culled from earth’s flora and fauna, in Merry’s hands and on Björk’s face, they are here distorted to paranormal dimensions—the natural becomes the super-natural.

Björk wearing “Ghost Orchid” face piece by James Merry, 2017, photography by Santiago Felipe.

This being Björk, after all, her idea of nature has never been all that down-to-earth in the first place. Heavily mediated by craft and technology, her natural world borrows from the surreal, her organisms emerge from an alien imagination, and her terrains look, well, very techno. And this being Björk, it’s not like her to simply paint us a pretty picture of this strange, unlikely landscape; instead, on Utopia and with help from Merry, she becomes it.

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