Step Inside the Neon Hair Cave of Shoplifter, the Artist Behind Iceland’s Immersive Pavilion at This Year’s Venice Biennale

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, better known as Shoplifter, makes art entirely from synthetic hair.

Birta Guðjónsdóttir and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter). ©Elisabet_Davidsdottir

If you step inside the Icelandic pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, prepare to be engulfed in a cave of hairy neon stalactites hanging. Chromo Sapiens, housed in a warehouse on the Venetian island of Giudecca, is the work of the artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, better known as Shoplifter, who works entirely with synthetic hair.

“I wanted to create a completely immersive space that would embrace the viewer,” Arnardóttir told artnet News. “It’s like an inverted animal fur hide, like going into the belly of the beast.”

But this is an inviting nest that offers safe haven from the endless whirlwind of art appearing across the city. You enter through a dark, almost volcanic chamber titled “Primal Opus,” while the second space, “Astral Gloria,” opens to a soaring ceiling, surrounding you with eye-popping colors. The final section, “Opium Natura,” is all whites and pastels, projecting a sense of serenity.

“It’s overwhelming. The colors are just so crazy!” Arnardóttir said. She imagines the viewer entering a tiny hole in the earth, where “you go down and you encounter suddenly a cathedral chamber of colors and nature.”

Installation view of "Chromo Sapiens," the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

But in her use of synthetic hair she creates a hybrid of pop culture and the natural world. “It started out with my fascination with humans and the things we mass produce for obscure reasons. Hair extensions are trying to beautify yourself and be unique,” she said. “I noticed that layering the hair together and having it flow around created a very painterly tapestry feeling.”

“This has been her signature medium for over 15 years,” said pavilion curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir. “Coming from a painterly background, she was interested in expanding to the three-dimensional sphere. She’s always worked in this zone between the visual arts and design and fashion, and is very attentive to the way people dress and the way people want to present themselves.”

Initially, Arnardóttir created braided sculptures using real human hair, but as she scaled up, that quickly became impractical, necessitating the switch to synthetics. Color came into Shoplifter’s practice in 2008, when she created a window installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Eli Sudbrack, a member of the art collective assume vivid astro focus.

“I like using this synthetic, pop culture material because it’s not precious,”Arnardóttir added. “It’s a little grotesque, but it becomes something beautiful.”

Installation view of "Chromo Sapiens," the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2019. Photo: Ugo Carmeni © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2019. Photo: Ugo Carmeni © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

“This is one of 10 or 15 large-scale site specific installations that she’s done,” Guðjónsdóttir added. “What makes this one quite unique is that it becomes its own architecture. She completely forms a new space with hair.”

Completing the bizarre environment is a soundtrack commissioned from the Icelandic metal band HAM. “Metal music kind of makes you go berserk and it brings out this primal, animalistic element,” Arnardóttir said. “I wanted this kind of primal, ancient gurgle—sub-terra tremors.”

The otherworldly, droning music adds to the sense that the cave around you has a pulse, that this strange, hairy world is somehow alive.

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir aka Shoplifter, 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter, 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardottir/ Shoplifter.

Arnardóttir wants a sense of fun to come through in her work. She’s even relinquished her own name in honor of playfulness; “Shoplifter,” it turns out, is an accidental moniker. “Somebody misheard my name name back in 1994. I was introducing myself to someone in New York, and they answered ‘nice to meet you Shoplifter,'” said Arnardóttir. “I just went with it. It was a joke at first, but it stuck. It’s a great icebreaker!”

“The name is a way of letting humor play a part in my work, because art sometimes can be overly serious,” she added. “But it also helps lift the burden of how impossible it is to say my name—it’s just impossible!”

“Shoplifter: Chromo Sapiens” will be on view at the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Spazio Punch, Guidecca, Venice, May 11–November 24, 2019. 


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