Exclusive: Andrew Huang on Björk, Black Lake & Jim Henson

Commissioned by the MoMA as part of her upcoming retrospective, Björk’s Black Lake – directed by Andrew Huang – is a deeply visceral piece that portrays the pain of heartbreak and the promise of rebirth. In the 11 minute film, the Icelandic chanteuse is transported back to her homeland and into the belly of a volcanic cave. She journeys through this lifeless, rocky ravine, pounding on her chest as she sings of drowning in sorrow. Watching her torment, one can’t help but feel the sheer guttural power of her voice and more importantly the vulnerability of her words. Darkness then turns into light and Björk emerges triumphant, shedding her woes, as she’s lifted into the light. “I am a shiny rocket, returning home” she sings as she continues walking into the distance.

Visually and sonically, it appears to be the most open and direct Björk has been in recent times. The film conveys her heartbreak without any veil, free from any cryptic meaning. Undoubtedly, Black Lake is the highlight of the exhibition and proves to be a brilliant addition to the singer’s legacy as well a testament to Huang’s visionary talent. Milk Made’s Paul Bui caught up with Huang to talk about making the film, his friendship with Björk and how he once found an unlikely muse in Jim Henson.

How did you first come to collaborate with Björk? Tell us about your initial meeting.

I made a film called Solipsist in 2012, and she found the film and contacted me in 2012 to make a video for her song ‘Mutual Core’ from Biophilia. We kind of kept in touch after that and in October 2013, she came back to me and said she needed a visual collaborator for this retrospective piece at MoMa that they were going to commission. So Björk and I have been working together for the past year and a half to make this.

When you first heard the song ‘Black Lake’ what sort of imagery or feelings did it conjure in your mind. What was your initial reaction?

My first reaction was that it was a very spatial song and for me that begged to be an installation, and it made sense to be an ongoing looping piece in the museum. It was also maybe one of the most direct and vulnerable pieces from her. The first time I heard it, it was a demo, it was just sketches, but I can see what she was going for and I was really excited by the opportunity to work within the structure of that song.

And how did you guys come up with the idea to film in those locations?

This was a big coming home album for Björk in that she hasn’t really made an album about Iceland in a while, and so we knew we had to shoot it back in Iceland. It was also had a lot to do with going back to her roots in the way she writes music – she tends to write music walking and we wanted the film to be a traveling film where she’s walking through the landscape as she’s singing. So that became the kind of pilgrimage/journey format for the film, but I felt like we’ve seen Iceland so many times now in movies, and this was a very operatic and dramatic heartbreak nocturnal kind of song, I wanted to shoot Iceland at night. I wanted to make Iceland the stage on which she is performing this opera.

You shot it at night in the caves, but also during the day in the fields as well. What was significant between the two contrasts?

Well we were trying to carve out a journey where she starts the song in the ravine and goes deeper into a cave where the most intense part of the song is and as she comes out, she reemerges and then arises in a new dawn. For me, even though the song had a perpetual scrolling feel or looping feel, there was very much a clear journey in the verses as far as the beat structure, and I wanted the film to marry that. I also knew in order for this to be a good film, and also an entertaining film, there had to be a story, and so there had to be the typical hero’s journey into the valley of trials, being in the belly of the beast and the reemerging as a new person. So it was a traditional narrative in that way.

As you were saying, the message was very direct and obvious from the beginning, but when you watch the film you can really feel the power of the lyrics and you can really feel that moment. Is it something that was quite rehearsed? What was it like directing Björk in that setting?

We had one rehearsal and that was quite explosive and informative. She wrote the song at one of her lowest points and by the time I ended up filming it, it had been almost half a year. So part of her kind of dealt with it and part of her hadn’t actually physically performed it, and when we rehearsed it for the first time it was really quite incredible. The rehearsal footage was actually really phenomenal because she’s just really comfortable. We were just in the studio, and she wasn’t restricted by the landscape or anything and it became quite apparent what this would be.

When you’re working on a project that is commissioned by the MOMA, rather than just a straight up music video, are there more restrictions or are you left to more of your own devices?

There are different kinds of restrictions. The ambition of the installation itself tempered by the physics and architectural space of the existing museum, and also that as a non-profit institution there’s certain rules that we had to abide by. Simultaneously, if it weren’t for the museum and their funding of this piece it wouldn’t have happened. So in a way they completely enabled us to do it, yet at the same time there were certain physical limitations on the way it could be presented and shot as well. Originally I was going to shoot it in 360, but we could never quite guarantee the funding to get 360 projections, which is quite expensive. So that’s why we shot it traditionally, but the context is different. We’re making a piece of art not necessarily a pop-video, but then Björk is a pop artist so it’s kind of okay for us to collapse those two a little bit. We were all a little aware of the ultimate place and home that this piece is going to live in.

What’s your earliest memory of wanting to work in films? I know that wasn’t your initial creative background.

I was really into Jim Henson, I not only loved watching the Muppets but how they made them with the animatronics and the labyrinth and stuff. I think the most important thing I learned from it is how important the frame is and how you can carefully select and order your environment with a frame. Honestly maybe the moment was when I was 13, I was just doing a lot of visual effects of my own at home, and I just really thought I could do this for the rest of my life.

You must have a lot of upcoming exciting projects. Is there anything you’d like to share?

Björk and I are working on a virtual reality piece that we’re finishing up right now. The idea is to show at PS1, and we’re still ironing out the details and expanding the experience from the museum, and I’m also working on another piece with Björk. I’m directing a few sequences for a new Warner Bros. feature film as well, directed by Joe Wright who did Atonement and Anna Karenina and Hanna. So I’m working on that simultaneously as well as a personal project. It’s all really fun good stuff.

Black Lake is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown East, Manhattan) as part of the Björk exhibition from March 8 through June 7.

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