In the airy entrance hall of Iceland’s National Gallery, the institutional silence is broken suddenly by the echo of raucous laughter. I follow my ears down the stairs towards the spacious, windowless exhibition space of Gallery 1. Passing through the doorway is like stepping into another dimension—the white cube environment has been transformed into a dizzying explosion of colour. Vast, hairy tendrils hang from the every corner of the walls and ceiling, tangling up into knots and junctions over my head before branching out again in a suspended web of retina-scorching brightness.
Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, the artist behind the installation, is better known by her nom-du-guerre Shoplifter, or “Shoppy”—a nickname based on someone’s mishearing of her forename. She appears from a bustling crowd of assistants and technicians with an infectious grin on her face, which nests in her own wild cloud of vividly grey hair.
It’s the seventh installation in her ‘Nervescape’ series, which has changed shape and size dramatically during its travels from New York City to Los Angeles, Norway, Sweden, Australia and now, Reykjavík. In some iterations, ‘Nervescape’ has been like a shroud of vines, cloaking the viewer on all sides. Other versions are more like a huge, bulbous beast squatting in the gallery, spreading up the walls and melting over the floors.
“It’s never really the same piece,” says Hrafnhildur. “Each one is like a new entity. I imagined something like this when I saw the space, but I never know how it’ll come out.”
The Reykjavík edition brings to mind the micro and macro: the vasts arms of nebulas, and the visceral network of nerves that hide within the body, presented in the hypernatural colour palette of ‘Avatar’’s sci-fi wilderness.
“I wanted to create a certain kind of mapping,” says Shoppy. “Here it’s light like cotton candy, and almost pukey sweet—then it evolves into this colder green, and then a hot, fiery area. The decision-making is like sketching. It becomes like painting in thin air. It’s my hairy Pollock!”
Working with chaos—both applying order to it, and simultaneously surrendering to chance happenings and spontaneous ideas—is a key part of Shoplifter’s process. “You can’t really tame this material,” she explains. “You don’t know exactly what it’s gonna do. It’s a beast—it does its thing, and you have to work with that.”
The resulting installation exists as a kind of dreamspace—a hidden pocket of the world where reality seems to merge with the surreal, colourful visions of Shoppy’s vivid imagination.
“It’s an environment,” she says. “There are nooks and crannies you can nest in, but then sometimes it seems like it’s disappearing into the distance. It’s like an excursion into a tropical forest—almost like a path, with intersections. It seems random, but it’s very specific—and then again, unplanned. That’s the exciting thing—the moment when it’s coming into being, and we’re blending the colours, and exploring what’s possible in the space. And being comfortable with not knowing the outcome.”
Hrafnhildur has long been fascinated by everyday human rituals of grooming, cleaning, extending, removing, and arranging hair. “We have such an extraordinary connection to this fibre,” she says, looking up into the dayglo mass above our heads. “It quickly stopped mattering to me whether the material I’m using is synthetic or human. Synthetic hair is so wonderfully absurd—it’s mass-produced solely for people to attach it to their heads. I like to take that material and give it another life, as art.”
The result is both organic and synthetic in appearance—a woman-made synthesis of the natural world. The vivid colours create a physical response in the viewer, whether from the itchy grasp of the hanging fibres tickling them from above, or a shiver from the body’s response to the colourful sensory overload.
“It’s definitely colour therapy,” says Shoppy. “I have this theory that colour penetrates your retina, goes into your brain, and turns on the natural ecstasy. It has the power to affect the way you feel—not just visually, but your relationship to size, and the scale of the world. You can feel like you’re a tiny organism in somebody’s fur. I’m changing people into lice! And just showering them in colour.”
Experimental and radical
Hrafnhildur was born and raised in Reykjavík, between the two families of her biological parents. “Maybe that was helpful,” she says. “Being two daughters in two places, you develop an ability to just be planted in any situation and make it work.”
She first started creating things as a form of of entertaining herself. “I started making art to fight boredom, quite honestly,” she says. “My mum was very supportive of me being in my room and amusing myself by making something. It was a super happy childhood.”
Her creative endeavours were boosted when she moved neighbourhoods and enrolled in Fossvogsskóli. “I moved from a very serious, disciplined, traditional school—where the teacher had a baton and was always shouting ‘Silence!’—to Fossvogsskóli,” she recalls. “It was more experimental and radical, with mixed age groups, and hexagonal tables instead of desks. We had a lot of textiles and learning to sew and knit. I met a group of girlfriends there, and we’re still best friends.”
When the students finished their lessons for the day, they were allowed to pick what they did with their remaining time. “I always picked art, sewing and woodwork—which is art, textiles and sculpture,” smiles Shoppy. “It’s everything I do today. I was eight or nine years old, and I already knew where I felt happiest.”
Boy George dreads
Hrafnhildur hit her teenage years during the pre-boom Reykjavík of the 80s. It was a very different cultural landscape from the cosmopolitan city of today. International pop culture seeped slowly into Icelandic society, creating new interests and fads for the city’s teenagers.
“I always had sculptural 80s hair, and asymmetric perms, but I never got to have Boy George dreads,” Shoppy laughs. “I was a breakdancer in a group called The Icebreakers. I studied piano and violin, but rehearsing by myself was so not what I wanted. I realised I was never going to be an exceptional soloist, and I was like ‘fuck that.’ So I gave up violin for breakdancing.”
It was the first in a series of unexpected swerves. Another came when, after graduating high school, Hrafnhildur decided to avoid the obvious by enrolling in a business course. “It was a very strange decision, in retrospect,” she smiles. “I’ve always had this tendency to go in the opposite direction that I should be going, and to struggle against the perception of what’s cool.” She quickly gravitated back towards art, ultimately graduating with a BFA in painting.
Life in colour
When the graduation trip took Hrafnhildur to New York City, she felt drawn to the city and applied for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “I loved it immediately,” she says. “It was the rawness, youngness, and positivity. It was like a rough diamond. I wanted to be part of the bigger world.”
Having travelled widely in Europe, she first considered studying in Barcelona, Holland and Germany, but felt that they were dogged by the baggage of art history. “I realised at some point that when I was envisioning my life in Europe, I was seeing it in black and white,” she says, “and when I thought about New York it was always in bright colours. So I went to the colour.”
The other students in her class brought paintings, sketches, and equipment with them. Hrafnhildur arrived armed with just her accumulation of ideas, and a strong desire to evolve her practise. “I showed up with nothing, not even a pen holder,” she says. “I felt like I could move forward more quickly by not holding on to the past. I was unafraid, and I wasn’t trying to nervously prove myself.”
Nevertheless, it took a while for her playful humour to start appearing in her work. “Art school in Iceland was very serious,” she says. “I was self conscious about wearing mascara or dressing expressively. You felt like you couldn’t be taken seriously if you were a chick. You had to be iron-clad in old jeans and beat up t-shirts to keep up with the guys. I was much more playful and into fashion and self image.”
Nature taking over
This outlook served her well when, after taking part in some group shows with her ‘Vanity Disorder’ series, Hrafnhildur was invited to show in a narrow window space at the front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She spent a frantic week sourcing materials and clambering around in the tiny space between two panes of glass, the process of installation becoming an unwitting performance for passersby.
The resulting work remained in the space for over a year, catching the eye of Alana Heiss, the influential curator and the founder of PS1. “She invited me to show in the Clocktower gallery,” says Hrafnhildur. “It’s a working clock tower with these gargoyles outside. There was a metal structure inside, like a readymade skeleton, and I suggested covering it with hair. It was my first large-scale installation, and it took me months to do it.”
Alana also introduced Hrafnhildur to arcadian paintings. “The piece became very much about weeping willow, and things being overgrown, like vines creeping up houses,” she remembers. “It’s nature taking over—like an organism, or a disease. Sometimes people see a piece of mine for the second time, and I haven’t changed it, but they feel like it’s grown.”
Since then, Hrafnhildur’s work has received wide acclaim. She has an ever-growing array of commissions and plaudits from the mainstream art and fashion media. In 2011 she received a medal for artistic achievement presented by the king of Sweden, and recently released a collaborative clothing line with the & Other Stories fashion brand.
Throughout her growing success, Hrafnhildur and her husband and children have remained based in New York. “I’m still so in love with the city,” she says. “It’s welcoming and inspiring, and you can make it your own. It can also be very tough on you when you have the wind in your face, and it did become hard during a certain period of time. But I worked myself through it.”
The colourful, celebratory nature of Shoplifter’s output is a knowing response to hardship, almost like a philosophical riposte to life’s difficulties. Through embracing colour and absurdity, her work offers an alternative perspective.
“I feel like my role is to pump this energy into the world,” she says. “If my artwork lifts people’s spirits because of the colour therapy, and texture, and the sheer absurdity of what I make, good. It’s good to be serious, but I don’t want to be ceremonious. I don’t mind being a clown, and being grotesque. I don’t have to be ladylike. Life is too precious to act precious.”
A few days later, the show opens, and hundreds of people join the party, laughing as they pluck dayglo fibres from their friends’ clothing in a surreal grooming ritual. The installation has grown, with extra limbs spreading across the room, and a long, hairy tendril hanging down over the doorway.
“I love surprises,” smiles Hrafnhildur, in the midst of the throng. “I don’t want to think too much about the future. Because I’m so excited to find out.”