Reykjavík to New York transplant Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, or Shoplifter as she’s known outside of Iceland, has been making quite a dent in recent years with her designs, including a huge window display in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art. Her most recent exhibition, Grey Areas, came on display during DesignMarch at the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Garðabær, and details a collection of various projects Shoplifter has been involved with over her fascinating career. She spoke to the Grapevine about her place in the art world and her love-hate relationship with human hair, which features prominently in her work.
How would you describe yourself?
Mostly, I work as a visual artist, but I’ve been battling the preconception that different genres of art need to be separated, you know, putting design in one box… that there needs to be a gap there.
In fact, I was going to ask you if you were an artist or a designer.
That’s something I had to go through an analysis of many years ago. I kind of fell into design by accident; I was always designing stuff for myself, and then my friends liked it and wanted some too, and you make one of those… but I’ve never, ever wanted to be a mass production fashion designer [laughs]. It’s all very contradictory.
You’ve said in your interviews that you’ve always been interested in fashion design, but it’s not something you could ever dedicate yourself to…
I don’t aspire to have a full-time job designing clothes… I’m a flirt, is what it is. I’m letting myself flirt with other fields. It’s like an affair [laughs]. You never want to say no, and you never feel there’s any reason to. Why confine yourself to working within a certain framework, when there are so many exciting things out there? For instance, the Nordic House asked me to be curator for the next Nordic Fashion Biennale, which will be in the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle; it’ll feature design and jewellery from the Faeroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. At first it made little sense to me, so I of course got interested. There’s a visual artist as a curator, who has certain obsessions with fashion and vanity and stuff like that, just pop culture in general, really. At first I was like “I can’t take time from art making to do this, I have two kids and a bunch of exhibitions, I need time alone in my studio, working.” Saying “yes” to projects like this leaves you with more than you can handle, mentally. At some point you have to start being careful. I’m also my own boss, and there’s only so much I’ll let myself do [laughs].
FUTURE PROJECTS, PUBLIC PERCEPTION
I found that when I started doing visual art, that you take yourself seriously, but never formally. There’s a big difference there. I take it all very seriously, all this hair and stuff, but it’s also disgusting and creepy. I’m making really sappy lace stuff with hair, and it’s supposed to be very beautiful and girly, but it’s also nauseatingly disgusting… it’s repugnant.
Does that come up a lot? Because I know that hair makes a lot of people queasy.
I aim at having people feel two things at once. Maybe it’s an obsession I have with contradictions. People are drawn to it, it’s alluring and fanciful, like Victorian or Baroque or something, at least at first glance. Then when they realise it’s made out of hair, they just [makes face of someone about to vomit]. It’s interesting to see which one wins out.
So it’s real hair?
A lot of it, but there’s a lot of artificial hair as well.
Where do you get all that real hair?
I buy it from wholesalers in New York who cater to hairdressers looking for hair extensions. It’s human hair, in any colour you can think of, neon and whatnot. When I first started working with hair, I got really into black people’s hair culture, and how it’s just at a completely different level, you know? Cornrows, rap culture and pop culture, all that… and this… obsession with your self-image, how hair is a connection between us and some kind of animal that we’re trying to tame. We’re always trying to tame our hair. Hair is like a weed that grows on you. When I first got started, I was doing all this ‘left and right hemispheres of our brain,’ and pretending to be drawing a map of how we think. I imagined that hair was like ‘the garbage of the mind,’ like an imaginary sci-fi novel where you can take a hair sample from somebody and read their thoughts by decoding their DNA.
Sounds like it’d make a bitchin’ film. Would you make a movie, someday? You’ve done video art and music videos, so…
Yeah, I’d like to do some stop-motion work. You’re familiar with filmmaker Brad Grey? He’s making a new film that’s inspired by my work with hair. It’s very promising and creepy, so it’s totally up my alley. I read ‘The Legend Of The Ice People’ when I was a teenager, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget those books, Tengel the Evil… all that. It’s so over-the-top and hilarious, but yet so disgustingly creepy. In one of the books there is a person whose hair moves and kills [laughs]… brilliant! I always imagined this incredibly hairy man, on whom I could braid cornrows down his entire body.
Is there something about hair, as a medium, that you think cannot be communicated in any other form?
Well, it started in art school, here in Iceland, and I found everything very limiting, medium-wise. I decided after graduating that I would never confine myself to any number of mediums. It’s actually kind of strange that I ended up being so closely associated with hair; I never made a conscious choice to make hair my signature medium.
Pictured: The family in their New York home: Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir and her husband, inventor Michal Jurewicz, posing in her sculpture ‘The Hairy Hunch’ with their children Máni Lucjan and Úrsúla Miliona.