‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ is the title of the 58th Venice Biennale. Representing Iceland is the immersive installation ‘Chromo Sapiens’ from Hrafnhildur Árnadóttir, aka Shoplifter, and curated by Birta Guðjónsdóttir. Since the installation opened its doors to the public on May 9th, the times in Venice have, indeed, been interesting..
As you enter the large-scale installation, you’re immediately entangled—and things just get hairier from there. You soon find yourself in the belly of a very hairy beast, immersed in a world of colour. The work speaks to the viewer on an emotional and almost primal level; you are engulfed by this world that takes you through different sensorial spaces that you might want to touch, and be touched.
The first of the three spaces Hrafnhildur created is the ‘Primal Opus,’ a dark and earthy environment with a deep droning noise. Emerging from the darkness, you next reach ‘Astral Gloria,’ a space that awakens the senses, screaming in bright neon tones. Here, you can lay down on a greenish centerpiece to look up into the magenta dome. The colours are overwhelming, but pleasing.
From there, the colours start to fade away into a bright white creamy pastel delight, with hints of pink and yellow—it’s the heavenly ‘Opium Natura,’ where you’re invited to sit or lay down before finally exiting the piece as a Chromo Sapien.
Joy, ecstasy, contentment
The work is one of Hrafnhildur’s biggest to date, with over 100 people credited in the production. “I always dreamed of creating a complete 360º experience, almost like an analogue virtual reality,” Hrafnhildur explains. “A giant environment that completely embraces you.”
The artist has succeeded, using synthetic hair extensions to create cave-like spaces that manage to feel natural, while also being a synthetic plastic world of bright colours—like being inside the artificial wigs of three giants.
Hrafnhildur speaks of chromo-therapy as an aspect of the work—the release of serotonin that can happen when your senses are overwhelmed with colour. The premise of the work is transformation. The viewer enters as a homo sapien, but leaves as a Chromo Sapien. “You lose the sense of your own size a bit,” says Hrafnhildur. “You have to recalibrate yourself.”
Birta and Hrafnhildur both describe the installation as monstrous and alive, as a shroud; a “hamur” (fur, in English); a cave, and a cape. Birta talks about experiencing your own volume in the space, describing “feelings of joy, ecstasy and contentment. Colours wash over you, penetrating your body and your eyes—they bathe you.” The therapeutic effect is “a neurological correlation between your body and the colour explosion you are experiencing.”
At the opening, there was a sense of joy and suspense in the room. People seemed excited and stimulated as they engaged with and navigated the installation. It was a who’s who of the Icelandic art and cultural scene, all present alongside their international colleagues.
The opening event was held in a beautiful garden behind the Icelandic Pavilion, and it was everything you could wish for—bright, sunny and perfect for all the networking and conversations these types of events are designed for. The energy was further elevated by Hyper Hyper—a music performance by Kolbein Hugi and Franzis Zahl—who released everyone’s inner dancer with their energetic and joyful performance.
This created the right level of humidity and sweat for the legendary Icelandic rock band HAM, who continued to set the tone of the opening. Their name alone has a strong correlation with Shoplifters hairy world, as it can mean fur, and has relations to the words hamskipti (metamorphosis) and hamagangur (going berserk).
Hrafnhildur spoke of her love for the band. “Having this experience of vibration in your body that stays with you has always energised me,” she said. “Their lyrics are humorous and they take humour as seriously as I do—as a life-sustaining element.”
Ham wrote a score for the installation and an anthem that was performed during the concert and is available on the fantastic record-cum-catalogue that accompanies the show. For Hrafnhildur, the surround sound of the aural element brings an aspect of time and movement to the installation. The environment is no longer static, but feels alive. “The music is meant to be felt in your chest and your gut more than simply listened to,” she says.
Getting to Venice
Shoplifter’s piece has since been widely reported as amongst the most exciting at the festival. Icelandic artists have often made a splash at the Biennale, making the Pavilion a must-see in a crowded festival environment.
But the process of getting there is expensive and time-consuming for Icelandic artists. After an open call, a jury selects the artist to represent the country at the Biennale. The artist is hired—with no wages—and a minimal wage is paid to the curator. The artist then applies to the Artist Wage fund, working on their installation a full six months before the fund is dispersed, despite having been appointed to the job by a government body.
The heavy burden of financing Iceland’s participation in the Biennale is shared by the Icelandic Art Centre, with the expensive rent taking up a big part of their preexisting budget.
Year after year, the Icelandic Pavilion is the biggest production of the Icelandic arts community, and the stakes are high. The effects of a country’s participation are measurable, and most countries at the event invest heavily in their pavilion. The Biennale creates opportunities and professional connections for a wide array of people besides the featured artist and curator.
As such, it would behoove the government to commit to creating a more flexible and manageable structure around the production. The project calls for more long-term infrastructural planning, earlier fundraising and increased financial commitment from the Ministry of Education and Culture to help create Iceland’s next body of cutting edge art.
The Icelandic Pavilion is, without fail, relevant to these interesting times we live in. In 2019, Hrafnhildur’s hairy tentacles entangle themselves in the consciousness of her audience, the new breed of Chromo Sapiens who are now spreading throughout the world. Head to Venice if you wish to join them.
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