Hrafnhildur’s Vanities

An interview with Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, a.k.a. Shoplifter.

Rafskinna Magazine

Rafskinna: The video published here in Rafskinna shows your collaborative project with the composer Nico Muhly, which was performed in the exhibition space The Kitchen in New York in 2008. Tell us about this collaboration and your part of the project.

HA: Nico and I had known each other for a few years and we’d always talked about working together and had knocked a few ideas about. He was asked to compose a piece of music for The Kitchen, which is a sort of experimental art center founded in 1971 by the Icelandic artist Steina Vasulka and her husband, Woody. The program there is diverse: visual art exhibitions, concerts, theater, dance, performance and all sorts of experiments going on in all forms of art. Nico suggested that instead of having a traditional concert with the focus solely on music, he would work on a project with me in the gray area where visual art, music and theater merge.

The musicians even played in and on some of the artwork, so that it took on a living role. For instance, I created a musical instrument, the first of its kind, as far as I know, called a “Human Hair Harp”. Nico created a composition for this instrument, called “Hair Passacaglia”, and he “played” it, kind of miming to the background tones of a violin. The harp itself is made up of three women who all have unusually long, auburn hair, and they lie in such a way that their hair cascades down from a platform like a waterfall or strings, which is what Nico played. Nico and I share many interests, he has a great sense of humor and we have a good connection between us without everything being one big joke. The work as a whole is called “Skin Bone Hair”, and we worked within the concept of these materials, which have been used for musical instruments from the beginning of time – bones to beat drums made out of animal skins and hair used in bows and string instruments. So, his compositions were influenced by my earlier works, and I created new works, like the harp, in the spirit of his compositions. For over a year we tossed ideas around, many of them quite far-fetched and abstract, but the result was that the fusion was just right when we finally staged the project.

R: You’ve used human and synthetic hair for a long time in your work. It has almost become a trademark of yours, and it is as if at some point in the process you’ve stopped thinking about the material you’re working with; it just takes over and you experiment. Is this assumption correct or are you always as aware of the implications of hair as a material as you were when you first started working with it? And what are these implications?

HA: I would say that vanity has been the ongoing theme in my work for several years, and I started to use hair to explore this phenomenon better. I had been drawing people from portraits in a genealogical register and started to give some thought to how much care people took with their appearance when they were photographed. When I was younger, I worked for a while in the photography department of the National Museum of Iceland, sorting old glass plates that were mainly negatives of portraits. It was such a revelation, a form of time travel, to sit alone in the basement surrounded by the smell of old artifacts and the sounds of Radio 1 and gaze into eyes from the past for eight hours a day. The people in the photographs always had their Sunday best on and had made an effort to look good, because many people only went to a photographer once in a lifetime – it probably cost a small fortune back then. My job was to sort the plates and register unusual photographs. One day I found a photo of a man naked from the waist up. This was quite out of the ordinary and when I mentioned this photograph to my colleagues it turned out that they’d known of this photo and had been looking for it for a long time. The man in the photograph was a worker who had been waiting for the photographer to turn up in the village, but when he did turn up the worker didn’t have time to change into his Sunday suit for the shot so he decided to go naked rather than be photographed in his work clothes.

When I look back I can find many instances and links that have led me to use vanity and hair in my work. Another story is from when I was twelve and went to have my hair cut. My hair was very, very long and was braided into a single braid, which was given to me to keep after it was cut off. I felt like I’d had a limb amputated and I was very unhappy with my short hair. I wrapped up the braid carefully and I still have it – I’m sure that many people have similar stories to tell. I worked in an antique shop for several years and I once came across a flower made from human hair. In the past, when a loved one died, it was common to cut the hair of the deceased and make a wreath from the hair to remember the person by. I’ve always found this tradition, which dates back to the 16th century, very beautiful and haunting. I imagine that, at the time, such objects had the same role as photographs of friends and family today. It’s interesting how abstract a concept of the person hair is.

Hair and nails are in essence dead cells that grow on our bodies like weeds that we choose to tame (or not). This is a large part of our look, it distinguishes us from one another and makes each and every one of us unique. We like to distinguish ourselves from animals, but hair is our fur and is a symbol of our animalism in a certain way.

I could go on – there are so many aspects to this that I’ve looked into. In the Nazi concentration camps, prisoners’ hair was shaved off to systematically break their spirit and humiliate them – hair being an important part of our individuality and pride. The hair was collected, spun into thread and used to make fabric and other things for warfare. The Tirupathi monastery in India still attracts pilgrims who, according to ancient tradition, have their heads shaved as an offering. Tens of thousands of people have their head shaved every day and the hair is sold and the profits are used to run this popular monastery. I also remember going to a museum in Istanbul and seeing a tuft of beard that belonged to the prophet Muhammad, which attracts worshippers from all over. I have worked with people that make wigs for Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. I’ve always found it fascinating that women of certain faiths must cover their hair in order not to tempt men (other than their own). At the same time it is all right for Jewish women to wear wigs made out of other people’s hair. I understand that there was a great scandal a few years ago when a type of wig popular with a number of Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn turned out not to be kosher. It was revealed that the hair used in the wigs was from people who had eaten pork. You can find stories like this from all over once you start working with this extraordinary material, this material that is so common in our everyday life.

I definitely didn’t expect to work with a part of the human body in my artwork when I first tried using hair. Once I started, I realized how I’d always been obsessed with hair, ever since childhood, really. I don’t know whether I was more preoccupied with it than other people – hair and hairdressing often play a big role when we’re young. Of course I have gradually delved deeper into the significance of hair in everyday life and the effect it has on human interaction, how hair and appearance are linked to success in life. We talk of good or bad hair days, for instance. Humor is also a big part of my life and it has a place in my work; sometimes it’s subtle but sometimes it takes over. I also love evoking opposites in my work, like with the hair pieces – they stir up a feeling of beauty because I present them like plant life, but they’re also disturbing and might instead evoke nausea, because hair on someone’s head is not the same as hair in the shower drain. These memories, stories, and links pop into my head as I sit and braid hair like an old woman at a spinning wheel. You become so anachronistic while doing such handiwork, and it gets me thinking about how imaginative people have been through the ages, using materials from their nearby environment, making beautiful things for themselves and others. I have great respect for the human need to beautify ourselves and our environment, whether it’s driven by vanity and narcissism or a simple desire for beauty, which in itself is vanity in its best form.

R: In addition to hair you have also worked with wool and other textiles. You’ve made three-dimensional works with such materials, but you’ve also created two-dimensional works that are almost in the tradition of painting or graphics. What elements of textile appeal to you?

HA: Vanity is fashion’s sister and I’ve worked a lot in the gray area between visual art and design – textile connecting the two. I’ve used old traditions in textile-related handiwork just as I’ve referred to established methods in art. I think that so-called folk art and naïvism have influenced me strongly, the playfulness often found in them, like in handicraft. Even though hair has been prominent in my work in recent years, I do try not to confine myself to that one material. I have always strived to set myself as few boundaries as possible in my art with regard to materials and I love being able to use any substance there is for works that call for different materials. But I’m still untangling hair in addition to other things.

Right now I’m working on two-dimensional works that are reminiscent of painting, abstract expressionism and minimalism, without there necessarily being paint or a paintbrush involved – I should mention that I graduated from the painting department of the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts. Traditions in textile play a big role and are now a recurring theme in my work and yet I struggle with pinpointing one single definition. Essentially I’m a pathological hoarder, of both material and immaterial things, and these experiences and objects that I’ve accumulated around myself and my family tend to be reflected in my works, things like shearing, fashion, practical stuff for the home, like coatracks and hat stands. Textile and fashion are such a substantial part of our environment. I like pulling that into art to see if the boundaries between these fields need to be so strict.

R: When your body of work is considered as a whole, this tendency of yours to break free from the confinements that convention has set visual arts is quite apparent. A long time ago you drew portraits of people from your genealogical register with colorful children’s markers. You have sought inspiration in the old handiwork involved in hair ornaments, exhibited photographs within the aesthetics of fashion photography, worked with musicians, theater people, designers and stylists. To some extent it can be said that one of the characteristics of contemporary art is delving into other media and testing the boundaries, but you’ve said that you’ve struggled with this. You’re not comfortable with defining what you do, are you? Or how do you see this now?

HA: I allow myself to jump between art disciplines and I link all my interests and obsessions to my art. I love being in that gray area and letting in things that I feel have something to do with the works, because it’s in my nature to keep as many doors open as possible and to study channels that at first might not seem to have a connection to visual art but lead there in the end. Sometimes I just can’t help it – it’s like the material and ideology chooses you and not the other way around. I prefer a very organic work process. Not knowing what the final result will be gives me a sense of security but also a sense of excitement, which is maybe why I’ve so often veered toward installation in my work. I like surprising myself, using my insight and just letting things happen. Human life and nature is my subject and it can get a bit corny, but I try to enjoy it and just let go of the cool to see what happens – I want to stand by my work.

But because I’ve worked as a stylist, made costumes for theater, and designed clothes alongside my art and let that influence my work, some might find it difficult to pinpoint where I stand. Someone recently called me a visual-arts-designer, which is a refreshing and hilarious neologism, but I’m always first and foremost a visual artist, even though I rummage through other art forms and use my studies and experience. Some people are obsessed with placing you in a box with a certain label, even if you’d have to make up titles like visual-arts-hygiene-technician or maybe visual-arts-cashier. This is just an old problem that I don’t worry about anymore, but I must admit that it got on my nerves for a while, when I was young and inexperienced in the business.
Hrafnhildur’s Vanities

R: What’s next for you?

HA: I recently founded, with my boyfriend Michal, the Arnardóttir-Jurewicz Art Foundation, which hosted its first event last year – an Icelandic-Polish workshop in a house we own in the Polish countryside. This is a long-term project that we intend to run for years to come; we want to create a place where people can work on their art in peace and quiet or in a group. The house is old and beautiful and the environment is tranquil. Last year was a great success and this summer we’re going to have a New York-Polish workshop. In the future we’ll accept applications for ateliers all year round from individuals and groups, but the house isn’t ready yet for winter lodging so we’re going slow to begin with as we’re still formulating the project and its policies. After Poland this July, I might manage a vacation with the family before I start teaching at Parsons this fall – I was recently offered a job in a new department called IDC (Integrated Design Curriculum). I have an exhibition in Trolley Gallery in London coming up in October. So 2009 is full of projects and assignments, as I also have a few other things going on. I can’t complain and I feel very good with my work.

Markús Thór Andrésson spoke with Hrafnhildur on behalf of Rafskinna