After an hour of between-set chirrups and chirps, enter, flute fans, Björk’s lady garden. A giant circular shrubbery in the centre of the stage revolves to reveal a grotto of greenery dotted with female flautists and flowers as evocative of what one onlooker calls “a lady’s tuppence” as Janelle Monáe’s trousers. Another flautist emerges from a giant pink orchid while Björk herself appears at the top of the stage in a white dress and sinewy headpiece, essentially a singing stamen.
Text rolling up the screens pre-gig explained that we’re about to witness the merging of nature and technology, and Björk’s ‘Utopia’ project – a kind of pastoral tech opera for voice, flute, and harp with the general air of someone having a crying fit at Kew – certainly does that. The troupe of harpists perform synchronised tiptoes through the tulips while Björk wails formlessly along to beats resembling babbling brooks and backing tracked multi-Björks. With ‘Utopia’ tracks dominating the set, the whole thing feels like watching a ninety-minute musical interlude in an avant-garde production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or attending a traditional Balinese dance performance with Burial. The Barbican would stroke its beard clean off to it, but as the climax of the first weekend of London’s most exciting new festival, it bores APE’s glitter off.
‘Arisen My Senses’ is a bold opening, bombarded with soft sizzle explosions and with Björk belting out her trademark banshee howls like a crocus with a diva attitude. But much of the rest blends into an undulating swamp of aimless sound, placing mood far ahead of cohesion. Björk intricately pieced the project together, but if she was just making it up as she goes along it’d have exactly the same effect; her rising four-note wail barely varies and her Tinder-based lyrics and ‘net references are largely lost in the sprawl. Livelier or better structured older songs such as ‘Isobel’ and ‘Human Behaviour’ are met with widespread relief; otherwise, the crowd spends as much time filming the real-life thunderstorm sailing past the site as it does the onstage spectacle.
Visuals of gold-spinning moth women and Björk as a Buddhist goddess made entirely of light are breath-taking and between songs Björk is charming and forthright by turn, thanking “precious Lon-don” or yelping “me too!”. Closer ‘Features Creatures’ adds some local colour too, Björk singing about being reminded of a lover while walking to Rough Trade East. But as much as it’s expected that we ‘appreciate’ Björk, gallery shows notoriously struggle to hold festival headline crowds, and this sure ain’t rock’n’roll. ‘Utopia’ would be better enjoyed on a tour of Tates.