Ýrúrarí celebrates 10 years of turning sweaters into characters with a solo exhibition
“It would fit well on your shirt. Just needing a nose,” says textile designer Ýr Jóhannsdóttir — perhaps better known as Ýrúrarí — as we meet at the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Garðabær. She’s holding a giant pink nose in her hands, while other body parts are scattered around the room — mismatched eyes, purple teeth, a blue arm. Ýr and her trusty curators are getting ready for the artist’s solo exhibition, titled Nærvera, that runs April 28 to August 27.
Weird and wonderful
The exhibition features around 25 sweaters; the largest showcase Ýrúrarí has ever done on her own. “All the pieces in the exhibition are upcycled sweaters,” she explains. “They are very similar to what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.” Ýr runs her fingers through a rack of colourful sweaters, explaining the story behind each garment. “Yeah, 10 years,” she sighs, as if surprised by her own words.
The theme of the exhibition explains its title — Nærvera, or Presence. “I have given a stronger presence to all of the sweaters,” says Ýr. “They have turned into characters. Before I got them, they were kind of in the trash.”
Ýr used to work with the Red Cross in Iceland, upcycling sweaters that couldn’t be sold due to holes and stains. “Now my studio is in Berlin, so I’m working with the German version of the Red Cross,” Ýr shares, admitting that she brought some old sweaters with her when she moved to Berlin. “It’s a mix. But they’re all something that someone got rid of.”
When it comes to yarn, the artist also tends to use leftovers, but prefers Icelandic wool for needle felting. “Sometimes people just give me yarn. I can’t say no, so I use it,” she says while showing me a sweater. “I got this yarn from a girl in Berlin. She spins yarn out of dog hair, so it’s a mix of dog hair and sheep wool.”
For the exhibition, Ýr is working with curators Niki Jiao and Yiwei Li from Studio Fræ. “They’re turning it into more of an experience than I had planned,” she says. “They have a more playful vision.”
Sweater weather state of mind
Ýr’s quirky designs have been showcased internationally and she had enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame during the pandemic with her reimagining of the suddenly ubiquitous facemask. With over 169k Instagram followers, Ýr says popularity can be intimidating. “It makes me post way less. But it’s fun to know that people appreciate what I’m doing.”
Living between two countries also has its ups and downs. “I do sometimes miss Iceland. It’s good and bad,” says Ýr. “It gets cold in the winter in Berlin, but in Iceland, it’s always cold. It’s always sweater season.”
“Last summer, I was in Berlin trying to knit a wool sweater and it didn’t make any sense. It was 40 degrees Celsius outside and I was inside with all this wool and I didn’t have any urge to work,” she shares. “But in Iceland, you always feel like someone is wearing a sweater. It makes more sense.”
Knitwear that lasts
Sustainability is the very fabric of Ýrúrarí’s art — for the past decade she has been working with the simple theme of making sweaters last longer by turning them into something special and personalised. “The inspiration is basically to turn them into characters,” Ýr explains. “If it has a familiar face, you can’t throw it in the trash — you don’t throw your friends in the trash.”
Ýr has been working on Nærvera for about a year — she has received listamannalaun, Iceland’s coveted artist grant, to create the exhibition. “I’m hoping for it to travel a bit before I sell the sweaters,” Ýr says. After its run at the Museum of Design and Applied Art, the exhibition will jet off to Denmark. While her sweaters’ destination after Denmark is up in the air, Ýr’s future has some direction — she plans on writing a book to introduce people to the concept of upcycling.
“There are so many ways to upcycle. Mine is maybe not the most traditional way of doing it,” she admits. “If this might inspire you to use upcycling for your own expression, it is going to be that kind of a book. But, of course, if you like minimalist, small mending techniques, maybe you should buy another book,” she smiles.
In addition, Ýr will be teaching a few open workshops at the museum where everyone is welcome to bring their own sweaters and fulfil their wildest textile dreams.
A slice of creativity
When we spoke, Ýr was also busy working with Studio Flétta on a collaboration project for the annual DesignMarch Festival, which runs May 3 to 7. “We bought a really big, almost industrial, felting machine. We’ve been upcycling wool leftovers from the Icelandic wool industry and we are felting wool pizzas,” she explains. “We will bring the machine to Gallery Port and we will have a menu — people can come and order pizzas from the menu.” The upcycled pizzas will be sold for the price of a pizza, you can hang them on a wall, use them as a rug, or a trivet. “We’re now prepping all the bases. The only thing left is putting the toppings on. Then we just put it through the machine 5-6 times, and you get a nice box with a pizza.”
Ýr agrees she and her collaborators at Flétta are keen on showing off their investment, but the project is also about showing people what a felting loom is — it’s just the second machine of this kind in Iceland. “It’s also like a live performance — you can see from the outside the station where someone’s putting the toppings on and where it’s coming up on the machine. It’s going to be a little pizza corner in Gallery Port.”
The idea was born when Ýr and Birta Rós Brynjólfsdóttir and Hrefna Sigurðardóttir from Studio Flétta were doing research at the Icelandic Textile Center’s TextileLab in Blönduós. “We always ended up making circles,” Ýr explains. “We were working 12-hour days or longer and I think we were just tired and we were joking ‘Oh, it’s almost like making pizza.’ Then we just decided to play and make one pizza.”
Quirky fun house
Though admittedly busy making sweaters, running workshops and crafting pizzas, Ýr says she’s ready for more: “The first sweater I made, I feel like I’m still making the same sweater. It’s very similar to this one, with the eyes on the elbows,” she says, showing off one of her creations. “Of course, some things have changed and some of the techniques have developed. But in the end, it’s always these cartoony characters.”
“I’m hoping to get more space to do different things,” she says. “I’m hoping to create more things from scratch, trying to do it the right way, because being sustainable is important to me.” She’s planning to move back to Iceland in the summer to work on her book and continue experimenting with the felting loom and a digital knitting machine.
In the meantime, with Nærvera, Ýr and her curators have prepared a funhouse experience — a journey through a colourful maze full of cartoonish textile creations, with each turn revealing a new surprise, including a chance to imagine your own sweater with a nose.
“The main inspiration is to break up how everything is kind of dull sometimes in the everyday,” Ýr concludes. “If everyone was wearing a sweater like this, it would brighten things up.”
Nærvera runs until August 27. Check the museum website for info on guided tours and open workshops: honnunarsafn.is
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