#TBT – BJÖRK X NICK KNIGHT | “pagan poetry” [2001]

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Timing is weird.  Just as Editor-in-Chief btbt and I were in the midst of discussing FKA twigs for the second part of a series on twigs’s crazy relationship with the body, clear twigs predecessor Björk surprise-dropped her new album, “Vulnicura,” two months early in response to a leak.

The album is co-produced by major twigs collaborator Arca, and is distressingly gorgeous, showcasing Björk at her most vulnerable in the wake of her breakup with longtime partner Matthew Barney.  Flashback fourteen years, and you arrive at Björk’s first V-titled album, “Vespertine,” which centered on the bare eroticism of the early days of her relationship with Barney.  After listening to “Vulnicura” a couple times, I found myself watching the video for “Pagan Poetry,” “Vespertine”‘s second single, directed by fashion photographer Nick Knight (best known lately for the “Black Skinhead” and “Bound 2” videos).

If there’s any line to be drawn between Björk and FKA twigs, its midpoint has got to be this video, which was banned from American MTV until they finally showed it as part of a countdown called “20 Most Controversial Music Videos.”  Needless to say, it is **NSFW**.

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According to Knight, Björk asked him to make a video about her love life.  He handed her a MiniDV camera and told her to shoot her own love life.  The result is frighteningly intimate and sexually frank – Yes, this is a video of Björk and (one assumes) Barney having sex, of Björk giving Barney head, of Barney ejaculating onto the camera.  The artistry comes in, though, with the post-production, which, in a weird union of censorship and creativity, renders most of the sex shots into quasi-topographical gray blurs, only leaving the vague impressions of bodies.  (If Jesse Kanda didn’t have these shots somewhere in his mind when making twigs’s “How’s That” video, I’d be incredibly surprised.)  If you don’t know beforehand what you’re looking at, the outlines could almost be anything – only the general style of their movement suggests the sexual act.

This ambiguity becomes complicated even further by the fact that a whole lot of the grayed-out body imagery isn’t from the Björk/Barney session at all.  The video is segmented into three basic parts – the other two are closeups of women’s skin being pierced (including Björk’s own ear) and Björk wearing a topless Alexander McQueen wedding gown that appears to be sewn onto her body, singing into the camera.  It becomes hard to tell at any given moment if the concentric lines you’re watching are people having sex or pearls being sewn onto skin or a woman singing with her hair blowing violently around her head.

The grayed out sex-shots thus unexpectedly become some of the least intimate parts of the video.  The truly intimate moments – Björk’s flushed face on home video, a closeup of a needle going through skin, an extreme closeup of Björk’s mouth singing the song, which I’m sure twigs is emulating in the intense opening shot of her new, similarly masochistic video for “Pendulum” – gain an almost overwhelming force when juxtaposed with the gray body blobs.  This power is at its most extreme when the ever-emotional singer is staring straight into the camera, lip-syncing, and then has to stop as the song drops into its “I love him I love him I love him I love him” bridge.  Björk can’t bring herself to even mouth these words, so strong is the emotion behind them.  The question becomes, “What’s more intimate, watching people have sex or watching them choke up thinking about it?”

Björk and Knight’s hearty mix of sex, vulnerability, bared skin, bodily distortion, and sexualized pain – the five women cast to be pierced were apparently all “into subculture and piercings” – is without question a prototype for what FKA twigs and frequent visual collaborator (and Arca videographer/roommate, to complete the circle) Jesse Kanda seem to be up to now, fifteen years later.  Knight, with “Pagan Poetry,” is almost like Björk’s Kanda – both of them having done both videos and album cover shots for their respective musicians.  But, as either director will admit, it’s definitely these two women’s visions that are most clearly at play here, and their takes on the tension between the bodily, the sexual, and the painful are some of the most disturbingly truthful we’ve got.  Here’s hoping Kanda gets what he wants and we get a Björk/Kanda video out of “Vulnicura.”

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  1. I love Björk. Vulnicura is gorgeous. I think everything FKA twigs has done without Jesse Kanda and Arca is corny and soulless. I wouldn’t say she has much vision. Rather it’s Jesse Kanda and Arca that gave her her career.

    1. I’d be disinclined to agree, Toby. While I do think Kanda and Arca are huge elements of what makes twigs fascinating, I’d never call “Pendulum” or “Two Weeks” (videos or songs) corny or soulless, and neither of them have a trace of Kanda or Arca.

      Not to put words in your mouth, but frankly your comment smacks of the age old “it must have been the dudes in the room” that your hero Björk rails against over here: http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/9582-the-invisible-woman-a-conversation-with-bjork/

      (That said I think Arca’s contributions to Vulnicura are a huge element of what makes it so good. Though Björk is obviously huger.)

    2. Oh, and while we’re on the topic, let’s please acknowledge that most everything interesting about Arca is either what Kanda’s done for/with him, or his production for others (namely twigs and Björk). His solo work, without visual aid, is nowhere near as interesting as EP1 or Vulnicura. Xen completely fails to hold my attention. And fuck “Sheep.”

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