New York City’s Museum of Modern Art wasn’t designed to readily accept the life’s work of Björk Guðmundsdóttir—a trait it shares with most of the world, which isn’t always inclined to embrace music that is challenging, vibrant and on occasion utterly outside the realm of mainstream pop. So when curator Klaus Biesenbach set out to exhibit the Icelandic iconoclast’s voluminous portfolio of visual and sonic art, he had to modify the building. To accommodate the resonating bass notes in a specially commissioned video for “Black Lake,” a song from Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura, “we had to build a new floor,” Biesenbach says, “to keep our Picassos from falling off the walls.”
The installation at MOMA, on display from March 8 to June 7, spreads over three floors, encompassing the photographs, music videos, costumes and custom-made instruments that have helped make Björk, 49, a singular pop presence since she emerged from Iceland with the Sugarcubes in 1987. Biesenbach pursued the singer for five years before she agreed to the retrospective. “It’s tricky for a musician to be in a visual museum,” she says. “To take someone on a musical journey, like a musician’s development, how you change in 20 years’ time. That’s the experiment.”
The singer sat down with TIME a few weeks before the retrospective was scheduled to open at MOMA. She chose a small cafe on a hidden-away street in Brooklyn Heights, where she keeps one of her three homes. (The other two are in Iceland and London.) Sipping tea and wearing a bright white parka, platform nurse’s shoes and a brilliant yellow dress that seemed decidedly springlike on a gray winter day, Björk was typically specific and eloquent about what inspired the images that photographers, directors, costumers, fashion designers, graphic designers and makeup artists have crafted for her.
Each is part of its own chapter in Björk’s impressive catalog of musical identities. Here, she weighs in on 12 of the most arresting works to be displayed at MOMA.