The Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (aka Shoplifter) uses hair as her main medium of choice. In the 14 years living in New York, Arnardottir has created a diverse and fascinating body of work, oftentimes crossing over into the fashion and music world. Arnardottir´s work is driven by her obsession with vanity and self-image. Recently NYAB chatted with her about her work from MoMA The Modern’s window collaboration “aimez vous avec ferveur” with assume vivid astro focus (avaf) to her hair obsession and her thoughts on the power of vanity.
How did “aimez vous avec ferveur” at The Modern restaurant with Eli Sudbrack and Cristoph Hamaide Pierson from assume vivid astro focus (avaf) come together?
I met Eli many years ago. We had an easy time talking about projects and art right away. He was doing a video using a song by Yoko Ono and he came to me asking to borrow some outfits for it. That was the first time we collaborated. I gave him things that I had made, like knitwear. Most recently I had contributed some hair pieces to the avaf show “Absolutely Venomous Accurately Fallacious (Naturally Delicious)” at Deitch Projects in Long Island City. At the opening the people from MoMA came and wanted Eli to make a proposal for a piece for the window to the MoMA restaurant The Modern. Since Eli and I enjoy working together, he suggested that he does neon lights with Cristoph and that I could do whatever I wanted with hair.
Conceptually, what is the background for your use of hair in that collaboration?
I was very inspired by the multi-colored, blinking neon lights. This is what avaf is about—penetrating the senses with color. And I’ve been longing to use more of the colored hair I had obtained a while ago. This synthetic hair is a very lo-fi type of material, very raw and fast to work with. It’s Halloween-ish hair. To me it conveys sweetness, optimism and light. It resembles abstract expressionist painting and addresses pop culture, pop art and fashion. Some color combinations are primitive and I dive into these colors. I am also inspired by the art and craft of old Scandinavian tapestry called shear rugs that were very common when I was growing up.
Is the hair in this piece meant to be human hair?
This one is far removed from human hair because of its color and texture. I see it as synthetic hair. Other people see it as yarn or some sort of related fiber, but when I use hair there is always a reference to fashion and vanity. I am obsessed with the idea of thread and I am often using thread to make a drawing or a painting. It is abstract expressionism painted with hair. It goes into many directions and you can find a lot of different doors into it. I sometimes call my mural pieces of hair “left brain, right brain”, or “brain maps,” or “maze of the mind,” because to me, it’s like knitting or crocheting thoughts: one loops into another, they naturally build up into this organic system that the world seems to be built of.
Is the colored hair a concession to avaf?
No I’ve used it many times in the past, but in a different context. Combining colors is very important. A braid joining blue, red and green colors can look grotesque, but when I add many together, the mass of it is very romantic. It makes me want to jump into it, like into a giant pillow. It is so soft and sweet, like cotton candy with the pink colors and the blue colors. There is something playful and innocent about it.
Let’s get to the bottom of hair. What does it symbolize for you? Why is it your preferred medium?
I’ve been obsessing about a little flower made out of human hair, which came into my possession when I was 17. I found it at an antique shop in Iceland where I used to work. It had a really big impact on me that this hair came from a person who had died a long time ago. I kept it in a small box and I really cherished it. This type of flower is called a Victorian memory flower. It was very common when somebody died to take the hair and create these types of flowers on a branch with them. Often there would be a picture of the person and then the flower in a wreath around the picture. Through the elaboration with human hair, these pieces offer a far more involving and emotional memory than a picture only could provide. It is a monument, a relic of this person, because the hair is coming from the body and it doesn’t decay.
For me hair is the ultimate thread that grows from your body. Hair is such an original, creative fiber, and sometimes an art form. When it comes to our hair, we all have to squeeze out some form of creativity. Everybody has to make a statement of some sort regarding their hair: You have to make a choice if you cut it or not, simply because it grows. And if you decide to cut it, you have to go somewhere to get it cut. And then you are always anxious that it won’t be right. And then there is the drama of the loss of hair. The Nazis would shave off people’s hair as a way of humiliation. You could go on and on… It’s been fascinating to me to be able to create an artwork from this material that is already attached to a person. And I find it at simultaneously comical, romantic, silly and beautiful.
When we die our hair keeps on growing. It doesn’t make sense, but there is an element of hope in that, that things continue to grow and are being one with nature. When I came to New York I was fascinated by all the different types of hairstyles on people and how much goes into taming it. Hair becomes like a beast growing on us that has to be tamed. In Hollywood movies women let down their hair during love scenes, so opening the hair becomes a symbol for unleashing our sexuality and inner savagery. In many cultures women are wearing headscarves and burkas to hide their hair, because it is considered very intimate. Then there is the orthodox Jewish tradition of covering the woman’s hair with a wig made of someone else’s hair. The more I am investigating and using hair, the deeper I get into it. It has become a hair fetish or an obsession of sorts.
Vanity, beauty and self-image are subjects that come up a lot in your work. Is it something you want to make people aware of?
I am opposed to vanity being seen as only a negative quality. For me vanity is a powerful energy that drives us forward and allows us to do creative and amazing things. Although at times it can have negative sides, it is far from being only negative. Vanity is underestimated. It’s a beautiful characteristic and it encourages freedom of expression. I think the most beautiful element in the world is the pure desire to decorate and beautify your self.
You are also involved in the fashion world. What role does fashion play in your art?
I always enjoyed making clothes for myself. My artwork originates in this grey area between art fashion and performance. I create things for myself or as a costume for a performance. Then somebody likes it and wants it, so I start creating clothes. I love making objects. For me they are just objects, one-off things, experiments involving the body. But I do not like getting involved in mass production at all. Last year me and my friend Edda Gudmundsdottir, we’re known as duo Steel and Knife Style, designed a few objects for Victoria Bartlett’s VPL line. We did hair bibs, a hair cape and a hair bag. After, there was one order from a shop in Saudi Arabia called DNA, which I find interesting in the light of the hair covering traditions I mentioned earlier.
Did you use human or synthetic hair?
I am mostly using synthetic hair. Sometimes I make small pieces, or a part of a piece is made of human hair. It’s quite amazing how we perceive human hair to be beautiful when it’s on somebody’s head, but creepy to us when it’s off. It is because hair is a body part. It’s basically human fur.
Your work is very craft oriented and time-intensive. While you are working, do you already have a precise plan about how it will turn out?
I am very organic and impromptu when I work. I let the material lead me and I love being in the moment. Every time when I am asked to make a proposal and to make certain decisions beforehand I get anxious, because it’s like working in reverse. For me it’s very meditative to just do and let it grow. It gives me tremendous inner peace and it’s a natural process. For example for the MoMA piece I had no specific plan ready beforehand, I had braiders helping me out and I had them braid different color combinations as the piece evolved, much like painting. It all happened simultaneously and I wouldn’t know the combination I wanted until I actually put it up. It’s like making music. When you’re improvising with someone, you have to follow and trust each other and use your instinct. That, for me, is the most enjoyable creative process. I’ve done a lot of knitting and crocheting and I never do it from a pattern. I just let it build up and so one minute it’s trying to be a sweater and the next minute it’s trying to be a dress or a hat perhaps. I don’t need to know it beforehand. I love not knowing.