THERE ARE INFINITE REASONS an artist might give for why they create what they do, from holding a mirror up to society to exploring the depths of color and form. But in the sometimes-too-serious world of galleries and museums, a motivation you don’t hear often is the one at the center of Icelandic artist Shoplifter’s practice: to provoke unmitigated, boundless happiness. Born Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, she is famous for covering installation spaces with hyper-bright synthetic hair, creating surreal and alluringly shaggy exhibitions in hot shades of slime green, Pepto Bismol pink, and egg yolk yellow. She jokes that she aspires to be the “hairy [Yayoi] Kusama,” in reference to the avant-garde Japanese legend who wraps rooms in psychedelic polka dots. Walking through Arnardóttir’s work feels like being inside a tie-dye Muppet. “I wanted to make work that would leave you embraced, blown away by this strange sense of the material. You start laughing — it’s peculiar and absurd,” she says. “[At first] I [thought], what I'm doing is so shallow, because it’s about pure joy. And then I realized, no, that's actually the least shallow of all.”
This summer, Arnardóttir, who is based in New York but living in Iceland during the pandemic, is opening something like a temple to that joy, a permanent installation in her native Reykjavik that will stand as an enduring place for people to come get a booster shot of bliss. It’s all self-funded (she’s launched a Kickstarter to help with costs) and will house a large, cave-like work covered in her signature hair called “Chromo Sapiens.” She first exhibited it as Iceland’s entry to the Venice Biennale in 2019. For a country where winter is blanketed in darkness (the sun is out for only about 5 hours a day in December), she imagines it as the art equivalent of a vitamin D lamp. “I started getting seasonal affective disorder when I was a teenager. Depression and alcoholism are very prominent here. It can be really hard to deal with. It's dark, it's insane,” she says. “I think [the exhibition] is an antidote to boredom and depression. Like light therapy, the place you go to for some optimism, like a flower or botanical garden.”
I think [the exhibition] is an antidote to boredom and depression. Like light therapy, the place you go to for some optimism, like a flower or botanical garden.
Arnardóttir first became interested in hair when growing up in Iceland — as a keepsake, her grandmother kept a childhood braid that she had cut from her own head inside her vanity drawer. “It gave me this thrill because it was both an amputation and an extension of her youth. It was beautiful but morbid,” she says. When she was a little older, pop music played a part. “I went to the hair salon with a picture of Boy George in colorful braided extensions, but we had such scarce access to products then; [my hairdresser] had no idea [how to replicate it],” she says. After moving to New York to pursue an art career, she fell fully into follicles almost by accident when she infused hair into more traditional drawing. “I remember buying this hair extension in some dollar shop. Drawing hair can be hard, so I thought, Why don't I just add the hair onto a drawing?” she says. Since then, her fascination has never waned. “We all have to make creative decisions about what we're going to do with this hair that grows wild on our body,” she says. “Hair has such a big voice in communicating who we want to be and what tribe we want to belong to.”
Now, her whole life is hair. She constructs her exhibitions with a pneumatic staple gun while listening to death metal, and has a studio packed to the gills with more wholesale fake tendrils than a costume shop. “Probably more than most factories even,” she says of her supply. “A 40-foot container.” She used real hair in her earlier work, including for the cover of fellow countrywoman Bjork’s 2004 album, “Medúlla,” for which she molded the singer’s actual locks into a kind of face-covering superhero mask. But human hair was hard to scale, so as her practice became more expansive, she switched to synthetics. She has become so adroit with the substance that she’s even mastered how to use it almost like paint on a palette, mixing in various hues to create specific shades. “It’s like I’m taming this material. It's three-dimensional painting,” Arnardóttir says. “I can make any color I want. If I want peach, then I just put orange and baby pink together and really mix and mix and mix and mix and mix and mix until it looks amazing.”
Some contemporary conceptual art can be intimidatingly humorless or confusingly byzantine. But now that there is a permanent home for Arnardóttir’s work in Iceland, she is hoping to reach as many people as possible — tourists and locals, kids and grandparents, a whole swath of humanity. “I don't want to make work that is understood by only a select few. It doesn't fit my character,” she says. “People can be so afraid of not getting art: Am I supposed to like this? Why? What is it that I'm supposed to see here? But I think with my work, people just dismiss uncertainty. You can't deny your own experience.” This is why her stuff makes sense to begin with: no matter your temperament, no matter your art-world sophistication, no matter even your age, a room with the sheen of Snuffleupagus and the complexion of Big Bird is bound to make you feel some type of way. “Scientifically it's proven that you take color in through your retina and it turns on these receptors in the brain that produce dopamine. [My work] kind of vibrates different parts of you. People just become pure nervous system and can't help themselves really,” she says. “You come there, your senses are triggered — and the destination becomes you.”
Shoplifter's Offbeat Guide to Iceland
Here, Shoplifter shares her top spots to engage with art, have a good steam, and dine on the freshest cuisine.
At Marshall House, you are guaranteed quality curation of modern art exhibitions from both domestic and foreign artists. The center houses Kling and Bang Gallery, Living Art Museum, and Studio Olafur Eliasson. It has a great restaurant as well.
Ásmundarsalur is a beautiful gallery space and a cafe with an outdoor garden. It has a unique curatorial program.
The Geldingadalur Volcano
There was a volcano eruption in Geldingadalur — need I say more?!
Fontana Spa in Laugarvatn
I grew up going to the geothermal steam bath in this tiny town my family comes from. The newly renovated pools and saunas at the Fontana Spa are by the beautiful Lake Laugarvatn, with hot water seeping into the lake.
Hosiló Restaurant serves you inventive and deliciously prepared dishes by Chef Númi. The menu is informed by the freshest ingredients available each day so you never have a fixed menu, which makes it exciting and surprising.
Gaeta Gelato is an Italian ice cream place. After spending so much time in Venice, I am hooked on the texture of gelato. Gaeta’s pistachio is the best I've ever had.
Alex Frank Writer
Alex Frank is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and editor covering music, fashion, and global culture. Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Magnus Unnar Photographer
Magnus Unnar is an Icelandic-born photographer based in the US. His reportage, portraiture, and fashion photography has appeared in leading publications around the world.