She goes by the name Shoplifter. No, the New York-based Icelandic artist didn’t steal the first set of hair extensions that initiated a lifelong love affair with the medium. The pseudonym is an acquaintance’s misinterpretation of Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s distinctly Icelandic forename. ‘Shoplifter stuck,’ she says. ‘I never worried about having a signature medium and I didn’t want an artist name. Be careful what you wish for.’

Set on embracing New York City’s cultural melting pot and vibrancy, Arnardóttir relocated to the Big Apple in 1994 and received her Master’s degree from the School of Visual Arts two years later. ‘I wanted more punk, more exposure to pop culture and electric energy than I could find in Iceland.’ With recent projects that include the Icelandic pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale, a rug for Hay x Chart Art Fair and a giant installation commissioned by Moncler for Milan Fashion Week, Arnardóttir isn’t your average artist. ‘A long time ago I dismissed trying to decipher which drawer I fit into. Stylist, designer, textile artist? I don’t want to have any limitations, or to close any doors.’

Photo: Emanuel Hahn

Why hair?

I secretly blame Boy George for all this. I grew up in the 1980s, and one day I went to the hairdresser with his photograph in hand, asking for that look. The stylist didn’t know how to re-create it, so perhaps my work is partly my unfulfilled desire to wear bright hair extensions.

Before I moved to New York, I worked in an antique shop in Iceland where I came across Victorian mourning wreaths made of human hair – a way to pass down part of a deceased loved one to future generations. I found the idea simultaneously morbid, beautiful and romantic.

Hair is the remnant of the beast we once were, and we’re constantly trying to tame it. It can represent our greatest pride, our identity. Losing our hair – our crown – can also be traumatic. I started working with hair because of its links to vanity, but now I’m also fascinated by the amount of materials humans mass-produce. People add synthetic – plastic – hair extensions to their bodies to make them feel more beautiful or creative. Because plastic can live forever, it can have damaging effects on nature. But my work plays with the idea that art is supposed to live forever. I love that hair carries so many different meanings and connotations.

My work takes itself seriously, not ceremoniously

When did your work take on a more spatial quality?

A strand of hair is like a line on paper. I felt that 2D wasn’t enough for me, and hair led me effortlessly to working in 3D. Some of my early hair works were wall murals. Later I had the desire to completely fill people’s field of vision with the material. I began to bring my work away from the wall to create textured free-form sculptures, an ongoing series called Imaginary Friends. Now it has become both the walls and the environment itself, as in Chromo Sapiens for the Venice Art Biennale.

Shoplifter stamped her signature medium over a giant installation for Moncler at this year's Milan Fashion Week. Working with fashion brands means her art can 'jump off the pedestal of a museum and live in the real world'. Photos: Agostino Osio, courtesy of Shoplifter and Moncler

You’ve been commissioned by brands such as Moncler, &Other Stories and Hay. How do these commercial projects relate to your self-initiated work?

One of the reasons I make textile art is because it triggers my creativity. I feel inspired when I’m playing with fibres and textures. I can then communicate those feelings directly with the viewer. My work takes itself seriously, not ceremoniously. People are thankful I let them touch it; it’s hard for them to resist. That’s why I allow myself to do projects in other areas. I work with musicians and design companies. If I get excited about this stuff, why should I deny myself because it’s not ‘fine art’? It’s a challenge to translate art into something usable and practical. But when I do, my art gets to jump off the pedestal of a museum and live in the real world. Loads of people are interested in art but can’t afford to purchase a big piece. We want that inspiration around us – something that reminds us of your admiration of or connection to art.

This is a condensed version of an interview featured in our Sep – Oct 2019 issue, Frame 130. Want to read about how Arnardóttir creates movement through sound and her theory on why art should be agnostic to art theory? Get your copy here.