When you are born into the world with a name that will end up most of the time as an alphabetic scramble, you are pretty much destined to fight a long life battle against loss of identity. Unless you settle down for the miniature version of a nickname, which is usually the condensed version of the extended one. Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir faced a similar dilemma when moving to New York City in 1994 when she got admitted to the School Of Visual Arts. In English the name translates as Raven Battle Daughter Of Eagle, and with such a beautiful and poetic meaning it is pretty hard to peel down for Hrabby or Hrabba. Through a peculiar interaction with a stranger Hrafnhildur instead ended up with an even more so unconventional name: Shoplifter.
Although lost in translation among most people, Shoplifter still pays homage to her birth name in printed matter as Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir a.k.a. Shoplifter. And this complex and bipolar combination of two extremes – the poetic and the bold, is probably the simplest way to describe the work of the artist. The work of Shoplifter is hard to box in – it moves through fashion, body-art, strange hair styling, performance and installation art. It is intricate and multi-layered never resting within one field, always creating openness for the public to bring in their own personal baggage. In that sense the work can be viewed however you choose to: as highly conceptual anthropology or simply to make you feel something. The last one is her personal driving force: creating unpretentious art that makes you feel something. By entertaining her own personal passions and longings, Shoplifter feels she’s addressing things she has in common with the world.
Shoplifter is well known for her mystic braided hair sculptures, installations and several collaborations with musician Björk, fashion designers ThreeAsFour and nomadic art collective Assume Vivid Astro Focus. After experiencing the gigantic tsunami of color in a window Shoplifter recently created in collaboration with avaf at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, all I can say is that the work of Shoplifter is some kind of magical overpowering feeling you just want to be braided into. Instead of having thoughts of Auschwitz, growing up, cutting hair as a sign of mourning or any other dark feeling. It felt more like the Hollywood reference Shoplifter described in an interview I did with her in New York City - when women would unknot their hair during the love scene as a sign of letting go of the inner beast. Hair representing the wild and raw energy. Now, who can’t identify with that?
JOFF: So how in earth did you marry the peculiar name: Shoplifter?
When I moved to New York I was pretty much optimistic about my Icelandic name and probably a bit delusional: I really thought that if people would try, they could really learn this name. What I didn’t take in consideration – what an exhausting process this became for me. You are in New York City and you constantly go to openings meeting a lot of people – where I ended up having 2-minute conversations repeating my name 50 times. One night again I went to an opening and when introduced to one woman, I said: “Hi I am Hrafnhildur”. And she answered back: “Hi Shoplifter”. And I was like – what just happened? People had come up with the strangest interpretations, but never anything that actually meant something. It was hilarious, such a pathetic name no one would ever want to be associated with. My Icelandic friend, who had a similar problem, used to introduce herself: “ Hi my name is Gerther, sounds like Heather”. That way she would help people remember a part or at least help them on their way. So I adopted the joke and went: “Hi my name is Hrafnhildur, sounds like Shoplifter”.
JOFF: And now everybody calls you Shoppy!
Yeah, in the end it didn’t get that far from those names I tried to avoid, Hrabby or Hrabba!
JOFF: All right, but no one can even try to forget you now.
It’s rather catchy and I was just really relieved at the time just to have a name people could pronounce easily. And it certainly draws people’s attention. I am this Icelandic woman with grey hair that has a name that sounds like a gangster rapper. Maybe it should be Raphilder, Ha!
JOFF: How did this translate into your work?
Calling myself Shoplifter has been more of a life long performance piece in the end. I´m not a thief at heart, I used to work in retail and was more of a shoplifter catcher if anything, but I am definitely shop-a-holic, and I tend to hoard things so that comes into play. I deal a lot with identies in my work and how you perceive yourself, having this invented identity has helped me to address my own work from other directions, especially when it comes to performances. The ego comes from your origin but I like to play with identity change and the freedom to reinvent yourself. In that sense the work is also much within the grey area of fashion, art and theater.
JOFF: So why not just choose fashion then?
I have a passion for fashion, but I have created a niche for myself where I can place this passion in my artwork, without having it to be fashion. I meddle with it, or I flirt with fashion being a career. Fashion has a very specific framework, and with my artwork I have no barriers, I have the freedom to create whatever I want. It can become anything: performance, costumes, sculptures or installations. And sometimes sculptures turn into hats or wigs, like with my collaboration with Björk for the album Medulla. So it is what it is and I can place it in my own context.
JOFF: Yeah, how did that collaboration come about?
Before I created the hairpieces for Medulla, I created a dress for one of her world tours and we have been friends for a while. I had my first solo show in New York at ATM Gallery, where I installed a hair mural for the first time called “Left Brain, Right Brain” – after seeing it, Björk asked me to collaborate on her next album cover called Medulla. The name Medulla was already there, and it was curious that actually Medulla is another word for bone marrow or the inner most strand in the hair. The music on the album is created all with the body as an instrument – keeping it very primitive. So in response I created these hair sculptures as a look that translated the same idea. It was an inspiring marriage of ideas.
JOFF: Using hair is a very significant part of your work, when did this fetish develop?
I think my fetish for hair came in to play when I was working in a antique shop called Frida Frænka in Reykjavik, where I came across these so called memory flowers. But I also recently found an old hair braid of mine from when I was 12, which makes me believe it was probably even earlier. I remember being pretty traumatized having short hair, it felt like a limb had been removed from me. We are all obsessed with hair. If you think about it, everybody has to squeeze out some kind of creativity dealing with your hair. Every individual has to make a choice, there is no way this can be something unconscious, you either brush it or not or have it cut and you always need to tame it in some way. Hair plays a big part in our vanity, and to me vanity is a beautiful way to express youself. To beautify yourself. I am fighting for the right of vanity to be viewed as something positive. LONG LIVE VANITY!
I really admire vanity when it creates positive things. It’s great when people take pride in looking their best.
JOFF: Next to people loving hair and being obsessive about it, hair is also associated with a lot of mysticism.
Hair can be both beautiful and creepy at the same time. It’s like the trash of your thoughts, the weed that is growing in the grass. Once it’s off the body we are disgusted by it. The hair and the nails are the only things that keep growing after you die they say, although someone told me recently that maybe it’s not exactly so, sounds cool though. It is like a thread, it is a textile. It is the ultimate thread that grows from your body. It is associated with power, pride, beauty and success not to mention sexual attraction. We have lots of fairy tales that address these elements and we see it also in many religions throughout the world. It affects our egos.
JOFF: Will your work continue to address the body in this way?
Well, I never in my life thought I would be doing “body-art”. And even though hair has become a signature material within my work, it is taking a different shape now. I am also coming out of a period of being pregnant, breast feeding, being a mother – I mean I have been nothing but a body. Maybe it is something sub-conscious – while I had enough time being a mom, now I am learning how to explore my new ways. And I am celebrating this!
JOFF: Quite an intense celebration as I saw in the window at MOMA.
Yes, that was a really great project. I have collaborated with Eli Sudbrack of art collective avaf working on costumes for dancers in an installation piece of theirs, and we have been friends ever since. Eli was doing this art installation at the Deitch Long Island City this summer and he asked me to participate. He created this neon light installation and asked me to add these braids of hair to create something new out of it again. I used this crazy colored lo-fi Halloween hair, which I have been meaning to use for a while. I just bursted out of playfulness creating these braids in grotesque multi colored combinations. At the opening the MoMA asked avaf to make a similar proposal for their window, which ended up in this collaboration between me, Eli and Christophe Hamaide-Pierson who is also part of avaf. It was like creating a giant painting, throwing flying braids around. And it was weird because I have always been using the more natural colored hair – keeping the more human hair reference. Even though I wear a lot of color myself – but with this project the color finally totally entered my work again.
JOFF: What was your most amazing hair experience?
For a while I used to work as a stylist too, and the best thing I ever got to experience was styling a model for an Orthodox Jewish wig maker company. Talking about a culmination of my interests! I am so fascinated with the fact that hair is considered so intimate. It is okay for the married women in the Orthodox Jewish community to wear other people’s hair, but not to show their own. They have to hide it, and instead of using a garment like a burkha, they wear a wig. Working with them, I realized how incredibly well made these wigs are, and how I don’t have a clue about all the people out there wearing wigs. You think you see people with a wig on and you ask yourself: “Why do people wear wigs? It’s so obvious looking!!!” Fact of the matter is that you don’t know when it’s successful. I was floored by this discovery, the entire cultures around hair and how religion can be such a big part of it.
As with this wig story, hair always brings so many incredible conscious and unconscious layers of references to culture, our own identity and body and so on. It makes working with hair in the context of art extremely exiting for me. It is a fantastic challenge of being able to both create and unveil all these mysteries.