25 July 2017

Seen on A Part Magazine N°1, Meeting with HRAFNILDUR ARNARDOTTIR A.K.A Shoplifter

In 1994, after obtaining a BFA at the College of Art and Crafts in Reykjavík, you left Iceland for the United States where you frequented the benches of the well-known School of Visual Art in New York. I imagine that these teachings were rather classical: when did you decide to specifically work with hair? What materials did you try before knowing that hair was the world you wanted to be involved in? How was this process developed?

After graduating from the painting department at the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts, now the Icelandic Art University, I was very eager to go abroad do to my masters. I had been looking at schools as well in Germany and Spain, but when it came to applying I only chose SVA. I liked the format there, that you would have a studio and be free to choose your medium and freedom to do “your thing!” My final choice was based on the realization one day that when I imagined myself living in Europe I envisioned it in black and white, whereas when I situated myself in New York it appeared in my head in vivid colors. I took the colorful route…

For me SVA was not as classical as the school in Iceland and I deliberately didn´t bring any physical artwork with me from Iceland to New York. I wanted to move on and be unafraid to do new things and bringing artwork with me to show the teachers felt like insecurities and lack of belief in yourself, like holding onto the past like a safety ring and being ultimately held down by it. It was all in my head anyways and I wanted to jump right away into the “now”. The city was incredibly inspring and I decided not to feel pressured to produce artwork right away. I would go into any store I found interesting, be it a dollar store, beauty supplies, hardware store or fleamarkets, anything really, found things on the street too that had a nice color, shape or form, curiosities.


I would use Elmer´s Glue to cover it and “preserve” it like I was shrouding it in my aura or encasing it, then I would simply doodle with found objects and experiement with canvas and placement of what I now would call “Nonsicles”. I used tape, Vaseline, glue, felt markers, paint and canvas for example. When I graduated I exhibited a few works in the SVA gallery in Soho back then. it was quite minimal, I hadn´t really figured out how to express the maximalist in me and was always trying to tone it down or simplify.

I was also participating in events focused on performance and one was called “the Human Hairsculptress” where I would offer people a makeover relating to our conversations while they were in the chair. I used their own hair to sculpt and color and did a presentation at the end where I overly explained the hairdo and gave it unneccessar meaning.

After that I started doing portraits like they do by Central Park and other tourist attractions. But instead of using the best tools for success, I used colorful felt markers that I couldn´t erase or fix and made a rule that I could only try once with each portrait and had to live with any mistakes and randomly choose colors so they became quite cartoony and alien like.

From there I made 340 portraits of everyone bloodrelated to me on my mothers side from photos in a family book, from my great grandparents and the 11 daughters and 1 son they had, one of which was my grandma.

Soon I noticed that I was mesmerized when it came to drawing the hairdo´s and started to hyper analyze how people choose to represent themselves in photos and what images of themselves they want you to see. That´s when the hairfetish kicked in properly.

In the 1990s, identity politics dominated the American contemporary art scene. Was hair – as a symbolic element, a marker of identity both individual and collective, a factor of “simultaneous feelings”, as you said – a way for you to take part in these debates?  Tell us about the critical dimension of your work.

NERVESCAPE VII | National gallery, Islande | photographie par Sigurdur Gunnarsson

Yes I look at the history and culture of hair, it plays a large part in how we see ourselves and we use it to dramatically transform ourselves, one of the few natural things we can do to change our appearance. I also notice how styles are repeated within ancient as well as modern “tribes” and how we like to make it easy for others to “read us” and place us in the correct cultural context based on our style.

In the army you would shave your hair that would strip you of your individuality and eliminate diversity. I believe that was also true of how prisoners during the haulocaust had their hair chopped off in order to break people´s spirit and resistance. It takes away the individuality, it´s a strange form of violence to have your hair cut off against your will, hair represents time and it´s our crown that frames us and the trauma of loosing it and balding must be hard to come to terms with.

At the same time as we admire beautiful hair and even judge people by the look of this dead thread or fiber that grows on our body, remnant of the beast in us, we are also incredbly discusted by it, in particular when it´s off the body, in the shower drain or in your soup. It´s fascinating to me and I feel confused by it so when I talk about simultanious feelings, I am referring to the contradicting feelings hair evokes, namely that of beauty and disgust.

‘Then you have your interests and obsessions, mine are the brain, neuroscience and psychiatry.’

Some of your works are “tableaux” in the most traditional sense (Study for an Opera I-IV). Hang on a wall, you have invested its rectangular blank pictorial space with hair.

They often refer to the natural and biological environment: even more, you convoke both micro and macro worlds, from the human scale to the galaxy. In this sense, what does nourish your visual culture? Did you specifically watch the history of paintings (or sculpture)?

I did graduate with BFA in painting and my work tends to be a lot about drawing and love of colors. Then you have your interests and obsessions, mine are the brain, neuroscience and psychiatry. I´ve always been obsessed with people’s behavioural patterns, social and emotional, I am an extremely social loner. And I´m constantly taking in and analyzing various elements withing our culture and how we as humans respond to one another and what´s going on within the inner life of the individual, the hidden stuff and the struggles or decisions we make when it comes to revealing ourselves to others.

When I look at microscopic images of cells and neurons, I see shapes, colors and texture, I see landscapes within the body and it´s very parallel to the shapes, colors and textures found in the galaxy. Nebula´s and planets become macro versions of our microscopic worlds and fractals and behaviour of various matters in our universe become abstractions and inpiration in my work. I see the Study for an Opera series as paintings where the fibers twist and turn within the classical format of the rectangle to resemble abstract expressionism, simultaniously feminine and masculine because of the textile element the synthetic hair extentions bring, they also bring with them the reference to popular culture and the mass production of sometimes absurd objects that feeds our invented needs.

This artwork is painting, brush strokes, tapestry, pop art, cartoons, pop culture, graffiti and so on, it can be approached on many different levels that depend on who you are, what age you are, what you do etc. as is the case with most artwork really. However you don´t have to know all these elements of inspiration when it comes to enjoying it since the artwork is simply desperate to be seen as beautiful, as grotesque as it may be with it´s troll like texture and frantic colors. It can be an attempt at visual harmony according to the artist, a search for stimulation, balance or most importanly investigation of the elusiveness of the definition of beauty.

NERVESCAPE V, 2016 | installed at QAGOMA in Brisbane, Australie | photographie par Natasha Harth

Did you look at the artists (unfortunately) categorized in textile art or fiber art like Eva Hessa, Sheila Hicks or Claire Zeisler? If so, did some of them participate in the creation and development of your work? Do you have memories of exhibitions that have made a real mark on you?

Eva Hesse I discovered when I was in my twenties in Iceland, we didn´t have much access to images of modern artwork other than at the school library and contemporary artist books I got my hands on were often times random gifts to the school´s library and books brought to class by various teachers that had traveled abroad. Often you would just listen to a verbal description of an artwork seen by your peer or professor. But I was brought up in the seventies with nordic textiles adorning the homes of many icelanders and I believe my upbringing and exposure to craft, textiles and knitting and such made a huge impact on me.

I started to use hair for example because of a so called victorian memory flower that I found in the second hand shop I worked at. It blew me away with its morbidity and nature like beauty.

Later in life I´ve come across many a kindered spirit within the artworld and it´s curious to me how certain materials seem to call for certain visual outcome shared by many artists throughout the centuries. I´m inspired by fiber art but I do not honor certain textile traditions, for example as much as I know how to make things nicely, it is not important to me that the fiber is carefully sewn together, I´m either taming or letting loose this chaotic material and I´ll use any method neccessary to get the results I want, be it glue or a staple gun and sometimes a needle and a thread. I am a clown and a punk at heart and don´t get too caught up by classic systems of how you “should” do things within certain disciplines.

Your work is marked by a great diversity of form and material that is mainly articulated around hair: there are photographs, installations, sculptures, wall murals… Your work is never strictly figurative and yet hair exerts a kind of symbolic and representative power. Is it important for you to create a familiarity between the work and the public? Is this one of the mission you entrust to hair? Is it the reason why you talked about folk art and naivism as a source of inspiration?

Yes I think you hit the nail right on the hairy head there, I like using materials that are produced for pop culture, for rather mundane or peculiar reasons and give them another role within my artwork. This inevitably creates a dialogue with the viewer who recognizes the material from it´s original purpose. When looking at craft and folk art, naivism and other artwork made with whatever seemed to be near, that´s where I connect to it, I was always making things as a kid from whatever I could find, shops didn´t sell exactly what you needed so it was best not to have a firm idea of what you wanted the outcome to be, finding materials that inpired you or fabric that inspired a piece of clothing was much more likely to be fulfilling. I sometimes just stare at an object I find strange or ugly until I start to find a place for it or see the beauty in it. I visually devour my surroundings and I have no off button it seems like. So visual stimulation and hyper analyzing everything you encounter can be rather exhausting, because it happens on a subconcious level as well as the concious one.

You realized a monumental installation in collaboration with A.V.A.F for the MoMA (2008). Between the landscape and the installation, you literally immerse the viewer in a sensual, tactile, captivating and visually exciting environment.

Is there a difference for you between the “perceiving” and the “understanding”? Are they opposable or can they act in a common dynamic? What reaction would you like to provoke?

I strongly believe in the power and beauty of color, it seeps through your retina and enters your brain to trigger and awaken your receptors and neurons that make you feel things. I like to shower people with colors and texture in order to give a certain feeling of joy, playfullness and even ecstacy in the presence of colors. I think artwork usually speaks to how it makes you feel when you encounter it and then if you become curious enough you start exploring it and analysing how it makes you feel and why. I mostly work from a place withing myself of how something is making me feel, how emotionally and visually satisfied I feel, the need to understand and analyze it conceptually arrives later for me mostly, I start seeing relations and connections to various topics that are or were on my mind on one occation or another and with some work I´m still connecting the dots and finding new pathways of understanding why I made this work, why it had to be this way instead of that way. I contradict myself all the time, I simultaniously sense the absurdity of artmaking and yet the urgency and importance of it and it makes complete logic to me that it be just so.

NERVESCAPE V, 2016 | installed at QAGOMA in Brisbane, Australie | photographie par Natasha Harth

The sculpture of the Imaginary Friends series is composed of vertical structures (like wooden sticks) that you made up with hair and different objects. Can you talk about this series? What does it refer to?

The titles to my work usually come after I make the work, I started the series in order to find a platform to make free standing work and get my materials off the wall and more three dimentional. I wanted to figure out a way to use more of my collection of materials I collect that inpired arwork for me. The wooden sticks started as makeshift replicas of hat stands that I used to prop up and display  hat like head decoration I had been making for Björk. These stands soon became characters and the sticks hypersymplified mannequins to shroud and hold a combination of materials representing a thought or a feeling and a composition of the two. Then the title came to me when I was surrounded by them in my studio as they had become imaginary friends with various character and emotion.

The technology gradually penetrates your work: first, the neons (Aimez-vous avec ferveur, in collaboration with A.V.A.F.), then projections (Ghostbeast, 2016) and 3D printing (Raw Nerves II). Would you like to develop increasingly this kind of collaboration between an art that is close to handicraft and technology?


I am very analog in the way I work, the neons a.v.a.f. made were a welcome element together with the hairbraids and informed the colors and shapes of the piece. It doesn´t come natural for me to even sketch up a piece beforehand so I feel slowed down by the use of technology sometimes and I just want to be hands on with the materials and be led astray when I play with materials and found objects. But I like the challenge of using technology and it makes me use totally different parts in my brain. I am very impatient with the process of working with a computer for example and have a hard time adjusting to the limits and at the same time distracted by the possibilites it has. However I have figured out how to collaborate with people that can create and execute the ideas for me in order to reach a goal within an idea for an artwork or an installation. Ghostbeast was a great collaboration where I had to accept I needed to involve the help of others and trust their creativity in order to get the right results. I enjoy collaborations.

It´s a meeting of minds and a give and take that can be mutually inspiring.

I recently got a chance to realize a capsule collection in collaboration with a major international fashion company, & Other Stories. I was invited to create a collection of clothes and accessories inpired and based in my artwork and it was tremendously rewarding where I, again, had to rely on other people’s ability, knowledge and technology to execute my ideas. It was really rewarding to see your work transform and become an extention of itself as if it was performing in someone elses play and it took the visual language into another dimension away from galleries or museums.

You work in various disciplinary fields that often interpenetrate. What are your plans for the future?

I am working on a retrospective book cataloguing my work in the past 20 years and then I have some group shows and solo projects on the horizon in the next 3 years. I’m hoping for more time in the studio to develop new artwork and continue to experiment with video projection and 3D printing and possiblities within the technology of virtual reality. I’ve had a strong demand for the hair work since I started working in that medium some 15 years ago and I feel like I need some hermit time now to develop and further explore materials like plastics that I started to work with in the past year as well as brutalist embroidery to name a few. I have performative work I’ve been marinating for quite some time now so you can say I’m  over all broadening my visual language. I’ve been lucky enough to find two great creative women, Ragnheidur Karadottir and Lilja Baldursdottir, who help me realize my artwork and manage my projects so I can have more flexibility to experiment with new ideas and grow as an artist. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me as I’ve never had a gallery so I’ve been slowed down by the practical side of the job and administrative stuff that started taking too much time from making the actual artwork. I’m one of those people that seem to have been born in the elusive NOW everyone is so eager to dwell in, so over planning my future is not very appealing to me. I have my goals and projects and just trudge ahead in the constant present distracted by daily inspirations and desires and I’ve come to complete trust in my instincts and gut feeling when it comes to my art practice and continue my expedition into the unknown, comfortable in not knowing too much where it will lead me.

/ Texts by Mathilde Marchand

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