Text by Alec Coiro
Photos courtesy of the artist
Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, the Icelandic artist known as Shoplifter, is currently showing her new body of work at Hverfisgalleri in Reykjavik, including sculptures made from plastic bags melted into lava-like formations. “By transforming the plastic bags I actually get something that looks like nature.” And for Shoplifter the fake lava effect of the melted bags is “the cheesiest thing I could make as an Icelandic artist from ‘the land of ice and fire.’ I find it hilarious to allow myself to address the cliche and then embrace it through the use of trash bags.” This is typical of Shoplifters attitude to her art: “I approach my work seriously but not ceremoniously. It can be dramatic, but also humorous and light-hearted.” She attributes this duality to a gremlin inside of her.
These plastic bags are something of a departure from Shoplifter’s better known material, human hair. But there is continuity between the two materials. Like the mass produced plastic bags, Shoplifter has only used mass-produced hair. “My work is a lot about transforming mass-produced materials and having them pretend to be something else.” In the case of hair, though, it’s not only important that the hair be mass produced, but also that it be intended for the human head. “I only use hair that is meant for hair salons. The fact that it is meant to be put on somebody’s head makes it preferable to just any kind of fiber.” This is important to Shoplifter because hair is something that forces every person to make a creative decision. “I am inspired by people’s ability to do things to their hair to be unique. It grows on our body, and it’s a really important part of who we are. It forces everybody to make some sort of creative decision. We try to tame it. It’s what’s left of the beast in us. The more I started investigating it the more I got mesmerized by it.”
Her self-described fetish for hair dates back to a childhood, she worked in an antique store in Iceland where she first encountered a memory flower, a keepsake sculpted from a person’s hair. Apparently this old craft of twisting hair from deceased loved ones into sculptured remembrancers is a technique that goes back to the 1600s in America and Scandinavia, a traditional craft form passed down from mother to daughter across the generations. “The only things that survives us intact is our hair. People used to use hair as they use photography today, keeping a lock of hair in a locket to remember a loved one.”
However quaint these sentiments surrounding hair might be, Shoplifter’s artmaking practice is in no way precious. She knots the hair with her fists and staples it down to a piece of wood. This is not a traditionally feminine braiding technique, but rather a process that she describes as aggressive staple-gun attack on the material accompanied by heavy metal music.
This approach reflects another of Shoplifter’s keen insights about hair: It has a mind and personality of its own beyond our control; we live our lives at the mercy of good hair days and bad hair days. Hair is our freedom, our fur, and our wildness.