Björk Cornucopia Review – electrifying pop concert, art installation and opening ceremony all rolled into one

It’s been a tough 15 years for Australian Björk fans. Like a cult whose leader quickly deserted us without explanation, we vacillated between naïve hope and utter despair, awaiting their return. Why hadn’t the Icelandic singer-songwriter – the most unique musician of a generation – played here for so long? Had she refused (or worse, had she forgotten?) to perform almost half of her discography here? Would she ever come back? Did…did we do something wrong?

If you’re a geriatric millennial Björk fan like me, her absence felt almost personal. We were too young for Big Day Out 1994. We missed their sold out show on the steps of the Opera House in minutes after Volta 2007. Those who saw her DJ set at Sydney’s Carriageworks for Vivid 2016 left us confused and helpless. None of the music was by Björk; no one could see her behind a strategically placed potted plant. (“Do we even know that was it her?” asked the punters.) She hasn’t played live in Australia since 2008.

Related: Perth Festival 2023 opens up to the world – with Aboriginal techno, the promise of Björk and uncomfortable truths

Now everything is forgiven. Or rather full of love. What we witnessed on the opening night of Cornucopia – the first of four shows Björk will play in Australia and exclusively for the Perth festival – was the ultimate expression of her artistry, an electrifying culmination of everything she has worked on since her debut in 1993 . Björk had already perfected minimalism with 1997’s Homogene (beats, strings, voice) and 2004’s Medúlla (almost entirely a cappella). Cornucopia sees Björk at her maximalist best.

At first glance, one might think Perth are lucky to have met Björk in the first place. When she insisted Cornucopia would only be performed in one Australian city, the world’s most geographically isolated city did not scream “likely winner”. But the Perth Festival has done its homework. They won the tender by suggesting to the renowned nature lover – who worked with Sir David Attenborough during Biophilia 2011 – that Noongar Boodjar is “one of the most biodiverse places on the planet”. It’s also home to some of the oldest geographic formations on earth, in beautiful contrast to Iceland’s youthful volcanic wonders. It’s a great sale. And audiences have flown across the continent — and the whole world — just for it.

In Langley Park, the Perth Festival has specially constructed a 100m x 55m, 5000 seat pavilion, bespoke for a sonic and visual spectacle. Co-directed by acclaimed Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, Cornucopia is conceived as both a lush art installation and opening ceremony and a pop concert. While Björk is primarily a composer and musician, she is also a collaborative multimedia artist. Their songs – like riddles – often only become more meaningful through visual accompaniment. Consider how synonymous her early hits were with her videos: her deranged cartoon self tearing up a chicken in I Miss You; her homeland’s emotional outbursts in yoga; the sexual intensity of pagan poetry, in which a naked and post-coital Björk literally sews her body into a wedding dress.

“When asked about the differences in the music on my records, I find the quickest way to use visual shortcuts,” Björk said recently on her podcast Sonic Symbolism. “That’s kind of why my album covers are almost like homemade tarot cards. The image on the front may seem like a visual moment. But for me it just describes the sound.”

With Cornucopia, she takes this visualization to the next level. At the beginning of the set, during The Gate, the entire pavilion trembles and throbs with light, as if we were all in a Björk electronic womb. During the ecstatic rush of Arisen My Senses, springs, sinews and threads explode around her. Two songs – Ovule and Atopos – mark the first time Björk has performed them live anywhere in the world.

Cornucopia notably digs 2017’s Utopia (an album all Disney flutes and birdsong, setting paradise after 2015’s post-breakup hell of Vulnicura) and 2022’s Fossora (Occupations: Clarinets ; the death of Björk’s mother; mushroom). Björk has indicated that the two albums are in conversation: both delve into concepts of nature, healing and regeneration.

Both albums also contain a lot of woodwind. Icelandic flute septet Viibra dances as they perform. (It’s entirely possible that they pioneered the concept of a choreographed flute section.) An 18-piece choir – who are all ecstatic to discover are Perth natives – anchors it all in human beauty.

For long-time Björk fans, however, there is added delight in how her hits are arranged with approaches from entirely different albums. Hidden Place (from 2001’s Vespertine) becomes even more sacred with the a cappella treatment from 2004’s Medúlla. Mouth’s Cradle – originally all human vocals – is paired with frenetic live drumming straight out of 2007’s Volta. Megahit Isobel – from 1995’s Post – swaps strings with the exciting cartoon flutes from 2017’s Utopia. The result is a pure headrush.

Related: ‘A Thrill’: Björk performs exclusively at Australia’s Perth Festival for the first time since 2008

As with everything Björk does, there is thesis and provocation. After finishing her main set, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg emerges as a projection addressing the crowd head-on – and challenging – on the climate emergency in a region of the world made fat, comfortable and wealthy from fossil fuels. If you’re enjoying this celebration of natural wonders and art so much, Björk and Thunberg ask what exactly will you be doing outside of those walls to protect them?

And cornucopia Is ultimately a celebration of nature. The visuals that surround us are almost living organisms themselves, programmed to respond seamlessly to the sound generated on stage. Björk screams in song and flowers bloom. Flutes chirp merrily and mushroom spores shudder. It reminds me how in the world of Tolkien – another artist who celebrated the sacredness of nature – people believed that nature was sung into being. We may do our best to destroy it, especially in this part of the world. But tonight Björk reminds us that art has its own responsibilities too. And the first step is to show yourself.

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