Iceland always makes a splash at the Venice Biennale. From Ragnar Kjartansson’s portrayal of an extravagant, repetitive portraitist, to the controversial mosque project, to Egill Sæbjörnsson’s recent troll explosion, this little island has proven to be one-to-watch at the event sometimes referred to as the “art Olympics.”
In early June, it was announced that Iceland’s representative at the 2019 biennale will be Shoplifter, aka Shoppy, aka Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir. A multimedia artist who makes distinctive large-scale installations of colourful synthetic hair, Shoplifter has been on a consistent trajectory in recent years, showing in increasingly prestigious museums in New York, Brisbane, LA and Reykjavík.
Shoplifter will work alongside long-time collaborator and curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir on the project. The two, it turns out, have worked together before. “We’ve collaborated previous on three ‘Nervescape’ pieces—hairy, large scale installations, in different settings,” says Birta. “The new piece will continue some aspects of that, but also expand on it; instead of incorporating the work into a space, we’ll be creating a space within the work. In a way, it’s a building.”
The new work—as yet untitled—will be installed in the same space that was used as the Icelandic pavilion for Egill Sæbjörnsson’s “Out of Controll” exhibition at the 2017 Biennale, located on the island of Giudecca. “It’s a wonderful space,” says Birta. “It’s spacious and strange, in a sense. It has a seven metre high ceiling, and a long corridor. We’ll use the corridor to create a journey that will hopefully lead you to unexpected places, feelings, and emotions. Feelings triggered by three cavernous spaces, with three atmospheres.”
Hamming it up
One of the spaces within the installation will feature a collaboration with the veteran Icelandic rock band HAM. “They’ve been friends with Shoplifter for ages,” says Birta. “They’ll compose something new for the space. It will have everything to do with speaking to your senses, in a way that you become more aware of them.”
Awakening the senses is something Shoplifter knows well. Her 2017 exhibition at the National Gallery of Iceland was an explosion of colours and textures that was enough to give you goosebumps. “We are very well aware of this impact,” says Birta. “The happiness effect, and also the phenomenological effect of activating your senses. I’m very much a believer in the intention and energy you put into the work. There’s this notion of giving a gift, and communicating something.”
Birta thinks the effect of the work is partly visual, and also a reflection of Shoplifter’s methods and philosophy. “There’s a very relaxed atmosphere about the end result,” she says. “This work will be very designed, of course—it will even take that aspect of her work a step forward. She’s been improvising work in a space in a way that speaks to the architecture, and increasingly planning that in advance. So the projects always become more complicated, involving more people and artefacts.”
Those who can’t make it to Venice should perhaps look out for the catalogue, which will take the form of a vinyl record including a variety of thinkers, musicians and writers. “You’ll lie on your sofa and listen to the text rather than reading it,” says Birta. So whether you’re swanning around Venice or perched on your sofa in Reykjavík, rest assured that you’ll be able to experience Shoplifter’s latest colourful outpouring of punk attitude and creative generosity.