This was originally published by i-D US as part of Hair Week, an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.
Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir has an unlikely artist name: Shoplifter. She isn't a criminal. She got her moniker by accident when she moved to New York City in 1994 and people kept mispronouncing "Hrafnhildur," as "Shoplifter." The nickname just stuck.
Twenty-three years later, Shoplifter -- known as a frequent collaborator of Björk -- is having a retrospective at the National Gallery of Iceland. The exhibition, titled Neversape, features hundreds of sculptures and installations made out of artificial hair, fluorescent weaves and Fun Fur. It's the artist's trademark to draw attention to vanity, excess and temptation with artworks made of hair, something that is usually left to the salon -- not contemporary art galleries.
Ghostbeast, 2016. Photography Elisabet Davidsdottir.
"For me, no material should be off limits and I like questioning our pre-conceived ideas about what can be defined as 'fine art' and what is not," she says.
Synthetic hair is sometimes seen as trashy, associated with Halloween wigs and bad toupées, but Shoplifter, who has her studio in Brooklyn, sees things differently. She was first intrigued by hair as a material when she found her Icelandic grandmother's cut-off hair braid in a vanity table drawer. "I was mesmerised by the sheer curiosity of being able to hold onto any part of your body; I felt like it was a relic that represented her youth and it touched me deeply for its beauty and strangeness," she remembers.
Imaginary Friend, 2011. Photography Jan Berg.
As a teenager, she couldn't convince a hair stylist to colour or cut her hair the way she wanted. "So perhaps, my fetish has developed out of these unfulfilled desires for sculptural and more colourful looks," says Shoplifter. "I was a teenager in the 80s, so that might explain a lot to some people… asymmetrical perm anyone?"
In the 90s, the artist started out using brown hair for her sculptures but she soon turned to colourful synthetic hair extensions. She used them for their colour but also what they symbolised: the difference between high and low art and our own preconceptions about what they signify. "Hair represents the beast in us, and once it's off the body, we think it's so creepy," she says. "It's a memory of who you are."
Nervescape V, 2016. Photography Natasha Harth.
The artist's work has become more extravagant over the years, fusing the intersection of art, design and craft. In her Imaginary Friends series, free-standing characters call to mind muppets or Dr. Seuss figures. Meanwhile, her round wall works made of Fun Fur look like emojis -- though they were made before the emoji trend caught on. And her larger installations look like psychedelic landscapes or otherworldly planets.
"One strand of hair to me is like a line drawn on a paper," explains Shoplifter, who has a maximalist approach to both materials and colour. Her installation Ghostbeast, for example, which she presented in Houston at the Day for Night Festival in 2016, is made of mounds of neon pink, blue, orange and yellow hair. "I am obsessed with colour," she says. "I figured out a technique that allowed me to blend the coloured hair and 'tuft' it into mesh fabric so it has become quite similar to mixing paint."
Tropicalus, 2012. Photography Jan Berg.
Shoplifter also has her own clothing line, made in collaboration with Swedish high street brand & Other Stories. She photographed braids, tufted hair and wigs and transformed the images into patterns for pants, handbags, T-shirts and jackets. "The collection is an extension of my artwork, a play of certain signature styles I've developed in the past 15 years," she says.
She has also collaborated with Björk ever since they first met 20 years ago at a second-hand store in Reykjavik, creating everything from wearable hair pieces to stage pieces for the musician. The most famous piece they've worked on is Human Hair Sculptress, a basket-woven hair sculpture the artist dreamed up for Björk's Medúlla album cover in 2004. The creation went on display at MoMA in 2015, as part of the Björk retrospective. "Björk has been a great supporter of my work throughout the years," says Shoplifter. "She is a true inspiration and extremely supportive of her friends, I don't think I've ever met a more creative person in my life."
Human Hair Sculptress for Medúlla, 2004.
Shoplifter's own exhibition features a new installation called Nervescape VI, the seventh in a series of large hair works. The series has developed all over the world; former incarnations have taken over the Clocktower Gallery in New York, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Momentum biennial in Norway. Each installation allows gallery-goers to touch the art, sit inside it, take selfies and cuddle in giant rainbows of hair.
Gallery-goers can also expect to see the entire entrance hall of the National Gallery of Iceland covered in huge piles of multicoloured synthetic hair extensions. "The sheer volume of hair makes one feel small in comparison, reducing us to insect-like creatures confronting an overwhelming mammoth of a beast," says Shoplifter. "Hair is the remnant of the beast or animal in us."
Shoplifter's Nervescape is on view at the National Gallery of Iceland through October 22, 2017.
Text Nadja Sayej