Back in mid-’90s suburban Westchester, New York, there were not so many ways for an essentially well-behaved, academically minded, socially timid twelve-year-old to be subversive. Cigarettes were gross; my parents had no problem with dyed hair, which kind of sapped it of its transgressive fun; and other, more dramatic signs of rebellion might elicit attention I was ill-equipped to process, let alone enjoy. But within the contents of my three-ring-binder CD case, I ranged far and wide. And there was no one who took me further than that punkish pixie of Icelandic cool, Bj?rk. I took one look at the white dots dripping from her lower lids on the album cover for Debut, and hightailed it for the FACE Stockholm store on Prince Street to procure something that might, in my bolder moments, let me emulate her look. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for, but I was fairly sure I was more likely to find it downtown than at the mall.
When Post came out, the friend who had introduced me to Bj?rk’s music in the first place (she had an older brother, of course), and I huddled round the speakers, entranced by the electronic hymns, punctured by the unlikely anthem “It’s Oh So Quiet.” We had little knowledge of the song’s layered origins—a cover of Betty Hutton’s 1951 ballad, the Spike Jonze–directed video inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg—we just knew that it had verve and pizzazz, yet none of the musical-theater-y tackiness that those descriptors implied. Over the years that followed, I watched as Bj?rk morphed into an even more adventurous boundary-breaking artist, not just in her actual work, but in her self-presentation, which was, before it was for so many people, really part of her work as well: the crystal face mask (which she memorably wore to meet Prince Charles), the fluorescent-colored pom-pom headpiece, the swan dress—perhaps the campiest of them all. Her outfits were “internet memes before such things existed” as Hua Hsu memorably described them in The New Yorker.
So when it was announced that Bj?rk would be taking up a kind of sporadic residency in New York at The Shed, performing a show titled Cornucopia seven times between May 9 and June 1, I was, ahem, eager to see it, and to learn everything I could about what was advertised as her most theatrical project yet. The show is directed by Argentine film director Lucrecia Martel, with Olivier Rousteing and Iris van Herpen making the costumes; the show will also include a harpist, a flute septet, and a person responsible for lasers. Undergirding it all is the work of set designer Chiara Stephenson, whose past work has included design for The xx’s 2018 festival show, televised performances by Lorde, and a Miley Cyrus–and–Madonna collaboration. But what does it mean to literally build the ground upon which a ground-breaking artist will stand? I spoke with Stephenson to try to understand a bit of the inspiration and process behind this unprecedented show.
I think a lot of people don’t understand what a set designer does. How do you explain it?
I’m a believer in making work that appeals to all kinds of audiences. A lot of the best theater design is less about architectural or decorative forms and more about creating a space that acts as a crucible for the alchemy of each live performance. Performers are reactionary to what is around them, whether it’s a microphone, chair, light beam, or bowl of water, and it’s in the meeting of the staging and the performer that something truly dynamic emerges.
You’ve traversed high and low culture—working on projects involving Miley Cyrus and Madonna as well as Shakespeare. How do you think about the differences between these projects? Or the similarities?
I don’t really see a divide between high and low culture. It’s strange that within the apparently liberal art and design industries you still get extreme snobbery between what is considered good and bad, high class and low class. I’d rather not do that. I think all types of art and performance should be free to cross-pollinate, and my career has hugely benefited from the freedom to weave between the different worlds of theater, music, exhibition, ballet, and so on, hopefully to the benefit of the work that is created. Bj?rk is a brilliant example of a performer who has the ability and confidence to present her work as “high art.” I hope others in the music industry feel they can do something similar. Conversely, I think theater should also take itself a bit less seriously sometimes!
What’s the most challenging dictate or request that a performer or director has issued to you, and how did you address it?
Bj?rk wanted Cornucopia to be both intensely intimate, as though the audience could feel her whispering in their ear, and vast, voyeuristic and distant. A challenge that demanded a creative symbiosis of sound and light. Through close collaboration with other departments, we worked to bring these shifts from the acute to the epic. Tobias Gremmler’s incredible video art was at the heart of this, flying from the macro to the micro with kaleidoscopic shifts that take the audience on a journey with and through Bj?rk. The show will feature surround sound that syncs with surround lighting, as though the staging itself is flying around the audience.
How would you describe the show and your role in it?
If the set design is the plate and Bj?rk is the feast, director Lucrecia Martel has been the chef! Add that with lighting designer Bruno Poet and me as theater creatives—the show, much like the venue, is a fusion of many things.
Walk me through the inspiration for this project. I’m particularly interested in the more material-seeming inspirations (patterns, fabrics, textiles, and so on) that seem to have informed the show. What are the icebergs? And what do they mean to you?
Natural forms are at the heart of this show. Whether the intricate beauty of fungi or the grand wonder of the cosmos, there was no part of reality too big or small to consider. Working with these forms and forces—light, wind, sound—aligns the creative process with the natural forces that keep life going, not to mention the materials we need to bring our ideas into being. It was also interesting to note the patterns that emerged as we moved our attention from the biggest things, stars and light, and the smallest, gills and microbes. It took us into both the personal and the universal, becoming infinitely small or unthinkably large. In the same way, Bj?rk’s music is so personally and emotionally raw, it takes you deep into your own life experience, but is also about the human condition in general. It’s fascinating moving between these perspectives.
I know that Bj?rk is a real person. But is she a real real person? What did she wear to your first meeting with you? Probably not a swan dress.
She is true to her art, and her way of being holds true to her way of performing. She doesn’t wear jeans and a T-shirt, or at least not that I’ve seen yet; she wears works of art, and this time will perform with another incredible mask creation by James Merry. She’s someone who doesn’t seem to draw lines between art and life. Bj?rk is her art, just as much as her work is inseparable from her.
Hudson Yards has had a somewhat mixed reception in New York, but The Shed has been seen by some as a saving grace—a way to preserve a little New York City counterculture amid the luxury shopping mall and millionaires’ condos. Do you think that this piece of work speaks to that desire?
Yes, entirely. We live in a fast-evolving, technologically fueled world, but also one that is revealing a growing consciousness for our environment and the well-being of our planet. Bj?rk’s Cornucopia is a roller coaster of a show that harnesses that energy and technical capacity, directing it toward a vision for a hopeful future. We have to protect culture, and The Shed is doing this courageously. It’s part of protecting the variety of our existence, which Cornucopia is also all about. The venue and the show hold the same things dear.
The conversation has been edited for concision.