“Dr. Seuss on LSD,” replies Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir when asked to describe Chromo Sapiens, the large-scale work that this Icelandic artist known as Shoplifter is presenting in the Pavilion of Iceland at the 58th Biennale di Venezia. “Think hyper-nature, multisensory environment that’s also a colossal, huggable puppet. Imagine being cuddled by a giant teddy bear.”
Behold the rare artist who seeks to provoke the viewer’s most playful nature. “I like making art that brings people together,” she readily admits. “I want people coming to Venice to use this piece as a heart charging station. We could all benefits from that these days. Right?”
Working with curator Birta Guðjónsdóttir and a specially commissioned soundtrack from Icelandic heavy metal band HAM, Shoplifter is transforming Spazio Punch, a former warehouse in the Giudecca Art District, itself a new cultural initiative that will launch this month on the largely residential Venetian island of Giudecca as the city’s first official permanent art quarter.
Evoking pure, childlike joy is the constant theme of Shoplifter’s work, from small handheld “fur-lings” to the larger scale exhibitions she has mounted at the National Gallery of Iceland, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with the art collective a.v.a.f., and inside Downtown L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall to name a few. “I want to tap the feeling of stepping into a landscape of a favorite childhood bedtime story.”
Representing her native Iceland however is a giant step forward. “This project takes my work to another level” she reflects on being chosen to represent her country with the infectious enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. A sixty square foot container was required to haul her preferred medium, synthetic hair, by boat from China. Donated Icelandic fishing nets are used for support. Spread over three separate chambers, it’s the 50 year old artist’s largest work to date, one that she has spent the last 2.5 months installing with a team of braiders and assistants including her daughter.
“You’ll never see any of the building’s interior, only hair,” she shares when we speak by phone during a braiding break. Those who know Shoplifter’s work will recognize her trademark material. New for Shoplifter is the sheer scale of Venice. “I’ve never had the chance to take over an entire space like this before. It will literally physically vibrate like your favorite rock concert.”
A dark, Goth vibe fills the first of three distinct spaces. This quickly gives way to Shoplifter’s signature bold, happy hues that she uses to create “an astral field” of the main rectangular exhibition area. This artificial nature is an oxymoron, she readily admits, one intended to provoke visitors to examine their preconceptions of beauty and the grotesque, since hair is linked to both extremes. The longtime NYC transplant says she likes finding mass produced “weird stuff” and taking it out of context to challenge commonly held notions of vanity, self-image, fashion, beauty and popular myth.
Shoplifter reads voraciously about neuroscience and brain chemistry. She theorizes that color penetrates our retina and has the power to directly affect the brain. “It’s a natural ecstasy,” she says of her mood-altering hair-scapes. Yet science is only part of the conversion she intends for audiences in Venice. “People tell me that my art is very therapeutic. I’ve seen people enter together then leave physically closer together through experiencing my art. Its empowering to witness my work bring out joy and love in people, which is not always true in art, which is mostly so serious.”
Smile inducing to be sure, yet Shoplifter’s kaleidoscopic opus is not without complexities. The synthetic hair is made in China. “I am part of our planet’s environmental problem but I am creating something for all humankind,” she acknowledges. “When you make art,” Shoplifter observes before hanging up to return to braiding, “you want to communicate honestly with your audience but I also want my work to give people a natural anti-depressant in these vivid, all-encompassing colors. It’s going to be an exploding rainbow.”