Langley Park, Perth
The fact that Björk’s career has been a surprise at every turn is a given. That the multi-faceted Icelandic artist continues to both astound and confound over the three decades since the world at large first discovered her via The Sugarcubes is a testament to her absolute uniqueness.
In a purpose-built pavilion that looked on the outside like a giant Volvo factory showroom, any (already grand) expectations for this Perth Festival Australian exclusive were blown away. Inside that purpose-built, sonically engineered ‘factory showroom’, the 5,000-strong audience were met with a tantalising, immersive experience. Sound and light darted around the walls and ceiling, the audience experiencing the performance almost from within.
It’s already well-known that this show is not about hits and favourites – so forget the likes of “Human Behaviour”, “It’s Oh So Quiet”, “Army Of Me” or “Hyperballad” – as incredible as they are – Cornucopia is built around Björk’s 2017 album, Utopia, and is lovingly curated, she told the New York Times in 2019, as a show that “is a lot about females supporting each other.” There is also a connection to the earth and not so much a call but a plea to act on climate change.
There is also an immediate connection to the locale of Perth/Boorloo. As the anticipation shivered from one row to the next, local choir Voyces took to the stage, 18 individuals in white-costumed unison plus an exuberant conductor whose right arm was in a sling. The left arm clearly didn’t care about what the right wasn’t doing, however, as he guided and encouraged the choir through several pieces that truly showcased the harmonious and percussive capabilities of the human voice. And while it’s Björk’s name up on the signage, Voyces weren’t merely a support act (they would indeed return later for “Blissing Me”), they were the visa allowing us to travel into what was to follow – the realm of Cornucopia.
The curtain was beautifully lit and slowly revealed the musicians on the stage. The curtain, however, was not just a piece of theatrical equipment that opened and closed, but a fully-fledged character in the performance. The first use of birdsong whistled and chirped in introduction, as Björk appeared on the big screens – part-avatar, part-anime and possibly animalian – the whole thing brought slowly to movement and life, as the singer emerged in a green dress with what appeared to be a breastplate and elaborate golden headpiece, her voice immediately rising to the occasion (as well as the rafters) with “The Gate”, seamlessly followed by “Utopia”, the title track of the 2017 album with love and resilience as its core, and the foundation for her Cornucopia performances.
Even so, Björk, as is her wont, will play with her own parameters. Both “Ovule” and “Atopos”, from her latest album Fossora, were unveiled. “The idea of Cornucopia was always that it would be a house to include songs from my next album too,” she stated in an after-show post on Facebook. Similarly, yet (of course) differently, she included the 1995 single, “Isobel”, as the performance journeyed into what one might call ‘trip hopera.’ On the screen an otherworldly Björk faced off/traded lyrics surreally with herself, reminiscent of the single’s artwork from all those years ago. Later in the set, 2001’s “Pagan Poetry” was every bit as riveting.
A hypnotic “Arisen My Senses”, meanwhile, shimmered to its end, with harpist Katie Buckley (playing an instrument proudly lent to the production by Perth musician Michelle Smith) playing notes that rippled through the atmosphere.
Throughout the performance Icelandic flute ensemble Viibra made up a huge part of the musical landscape, each appearing to use their instrument as a talisman, as they wandered and danced lightly around the stage. For “Body Memory” they sat around Björk at the front of the stage as a huge chrome ring descended over the singer and down to their hands. The ring was actually a complex flute that requires all four of them to play at once in order for it to make a sound. That sound was wondrous, and while the scenario seemed complex, the overall effect was simply mesmerising. Austrian percussionist Manu Delago, meanwhile, elicited thunder, lightning and lilt from an assortment of rhythmic tools, be they electronic, acoustic, or even water-based.
The evening was a theatrical presentation, but Bjork was loose and mostly unchoreographed, clutching her microphone like a lead singer fronting a band, gesticulating to the front rows during a spirited rendition of “Sue Me”. While the stage and the activities of its inhabitants was evocative of a kind of musical village from anywhere but here, Björk was the often graceful, occasionally awkward but always compelling guide.
The visuals were never not stunning and Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s direction of the show was evocative of both the music and the theme represented – the earth, given its due, will allow and rely upon itself to thrive. As such, fecund visual displays of flowers, fungi, tendrils and other un-nameable objects of nature bloomed, exploded, disappeared and regenerated to a soundtrack that was equally as high and wide.
The Paris Accord was cited and pled for (“Imagine a future – be in it”) and the moments prior to the encore featured a video address from Greta Thunberg pondering what will be left of the planet for the audience’s children. That it was recorded four years ago and not much seems to have evolved is a sadness in itself.
Emerging into the encore in a white outfit set off with leaved branches and feathers, Björk returned with choral backing for “Future Never” then finished on a jauntier note with “Notget”. “Thanks for tonight,” she said with a friendly smile, her Icelandic accent clipping through the air.
In reviewing a performance such as this it almost seems like some strange new language is necessary to even begin describing it. Suffice to say, in anyone’s language, the entire audience walked out of the pavilion utterly spellbound, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Perth with tickets to any of the three remaining shows, then you will be too.