ART+CULTURE: We catch up with Shoplifter to talk in-depth about her recent installation Chromo Sapiens
Art installation: Shoplifter
Interview: Katharina Lina
Video: Aris Akritidis
Photography: Panos Damaskinidis
Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir aka Shoplifter represented Iceland at the 2019 Venice Biennale with a large-scale interactive installation made from an incredible amount of multi-coloured synthetic hair. It was an early November evening, just several days before Venice was flooded. As soon as I stepped off the boat and onto Giudecca, I was hit with face-numbingly frigid winds, as our team navigated through converted factory buildings until we found the Iceland pavilion that was hosting Shoplifter’s work Chromo Sapiens. We arrived in a dimly-lit front room catching a first glimpse into the surreal hair cave ahead of us. I want to say I welcomed the warmth of the cave, but the warmth of the cave really welcomed me. The escape from the outside, the relaxing sounds of slow droning growls, the stimulating colours in front of us — I was instantly drawn in and captivated.
The installation was a landscape of hair. Wherever you looked, all you saw was hair, with the small exception of the carpet on the floor. The walls were hair, the ceiling was hair, and large columns of hair were hanging from the roof not unlike stalactites in a cave. The first of the three consecutive chambers called Primal Opus was the smallest and darkest; inspired by earthy hues, blacks and browns lined the walls with flashes of neon coloured hair bringing it alive. After leaving behind the busily bustling alleys of Venice, this room served as an emotional palate cleanser for centering yourself, calming the mind, and preparing it for what was to come. Then we entered the second and biggest chamber, Astral Gloria, an explosion of brightly coloured hair hanging from disorientating heights and dramatically illuminated by uplights. We had cleansed our palates and were now feasting on this main course of an experience. There were different recordings of sounds being played from various hidden speakers, creating a soundscape that was as all-encompassing as the landscape. Last came the third chamber Opium Natura, where shades of white and pastels created a celestial cloud cave. I spent some time here – god knows how long, all I know is we left a good while after the official closing time – sitting on the floor, leaning back into the hair wall and looking around, above, and ahead into the previous rooms. It feels difficult to put into words without potentially sounding pretentious, but I felt relaxed into an almost trance-like state while simultaneously experiencing an overwhelming joy or elation. Like getting a full-body massage while hearing the news of world peace, or something along those lines. But the name of the last chamber shows that this drugless high I experienced was all planned for, and if I (not an art critic) may say so, impeccably and successfully carried out.
You’ve created massive sculptures and installations before but not quite as all encompassing as Chromo Sapiens. Can you tell us about the point where you knew “This is what I need to create next”? The first large scale installation I did was in 2008 in the MOMA window and what I liked about that piece was that you could fill up your visual field with the artwork. And it’s something about filling up your visual field with art and having complete access to everything you’re looking at. That the Artwork fills up everything you’re seeing. And then I slowly started figuring out how to go larger because I wanted to create an environment that you’re embraced and cloaked in. At some point I also did wallpapers to get that sort of feeling because I hadn’t figured out how to use so much hair in an installation that it would totally be 360. So I’ve been moving towards this; I did a large scale installation at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane in Queensland, Australia and there you could really take a photo of a person and you’d see nothing but the hair. When I was invited to represent Iceland at the Venice biennale it was like ‘Ok now is the time’ it was like the Olympics and you give it everything you’ve got. It was the perfect opportunity to do that.
And also the pavilion, the way the building is, it’s just an empty square box. It depends on the space, and how well you can adapt to it. I wanted to create an escape into a surreal hyper-natural landscape. It’s almost like what people want to do with VR except this was analogue without any technology. I wanted to make it more tangible and more physical like you’re not blocking out your body and just using your mind, but your body is responding too so it’s about allowing it to affect all of your senses; the sense of hearing sound, seeing, touching, and kind of losing reference to size, like your own size vs the size of the artwork. I just wanted to create this overwhelming abundance of this material and create a painting, a landscape painting. Landscape doesn’t have to be a field with a mountain in the back and the sky. It can also be a cave. So landscape painting for me is this 3-dimensional all-encompassing environment that I created.
Were you familiar with the space? I had been to the previous biennale, and when I knew they were going to use the same space we got some drawings of the space, and there was an application process and I applied by creating a piece that would fit into this particular space, so I based it on the space. And I managed to get the results that I set out to do, both visually and sound-wise so it really worked out how I planned it and I’m very proud of that because you can’t always count on that.
"I believe there must be something about all the colours that penetrates your retina and releases dopamine because it’s like a natural high that people are experiencing"
Last time INFRINGE spoke to you, you talked about liking the idea of exploring hair as the beautiful thing we take pride in as well as the grotesque thing we find creepy. I have to say, when I walked into that space, there were no negative perceptions whatsoever. The colours, sounds, and textures just made me incredibly relaxed and weirdly blissful? Was this part of your intention? I think that when it comes to the hair, people come in and have to have an internal conversation about whether it’s suffocating or overwhelming or grotesque. It’s an intense fabric. But then the colours bring you in another direction. You have these conflicting feelings and you have to kind of figure out which one is gonna take over, because it’s so abstract and over-the-top. When it comes to whether or not it could be seen as disgusting, it’s kind of more like moss, or vegetation rather than hair. It’s so removed from my original work with hair; even though it is synthetic fibre that is used for hair extensions, I use it more like paint. It’s more referencing teddy bears, and beasts, and puppet shows, and Dr Seuss; it’s more cartoon-y I think. People kind of leave all pretence at the door, all the shields we have, and filters for being influenced easily by something. The armour that we all carry just kind of falls off and people leave it at the door and just go experience. Everybody seems to feel good and blissful in the work. That makes me so tremendously happy, that people come and stay for a long time. That’s why the name is Chromo Sapiens; I’m not naming the piece itself, I’m more naming the audience. It’s a journey to get there, like journey to the center of the world. It’s sub-terra. You come and you just experience your own awareness in facing this material and taking in the colours and I think people surrender to it and enjoy being able to forget about everything and just be.
To achieve the goal of touching people with my artwork or communicating some sort of increased sense of wellbeing and positive mental health through my artwork… There is a woman who messaged me through LinkedIn, and she said she had had an eye surgery where her cornea had to be removed from one of her eyes so her eyes couldn’t work together again. She always had one problematic eye where she saw black spots, while the other eye was okay. She messaged me that when she came into the piece, suddenly her eyes started collaborating and she was blown away because there were no more black spots in her field of vision and both her eyes managed to work together and enjoy the colours. I was in tears when I read that. It must have been such an experience for her to have this break from her eye problems.
I wish I had a mini version of Chromo Sapiens at home, or even at work where I could spend some time doing a relaxation session before a big day of meetings! Yeah I think every workplace should have one, like a little rainbow relaxation igloo! Just a place for meditation and recharging. There are people that I met on the last day of the show and I would be like “Oh it’s the last day – great that you made it” and they would reply “No, no, it’s the 10th time I’m here, I’m just coming one last time before it’s gone because it makes me feel better.” So in a way I also believe it could help with things like Seasonal Affective Disorder, for example, depression. Just as light therapy has an effect on that, so do these colours.
Let’s go through the space. Talk to me about Primal Opus, Astral Gloria, and Opium Natura. What was the idea behind creating these three distinct sections? The way I thought about the artwork was that it would be like entering into the earth. I named that cave Primal Opus, dedicated to the heavy metal rock band HAM who created the soundscape. This cave was goth-like and dark, but still with hints of bright colours like an electric blue or a neon yellow running through the dark like electric shocks so the cave wouldn’t be pitch black but still had a range of colour shining through the dark. So you come into the building from the light and then you have to wait for your eyes to adjust because it’s dark, and then you start seeing these neon threads sticking out from the blackness and you start listening and you hear this sub-terra murmuring soundscape that, for me was meant to have an effect on you where you don’t necessarily listen to it with your ears but you also feel it in your chest, the vibrations of sound waves. Similar to when you go to a loud concert and the music vibrates, almost like a massage, my insides and my blood cells vibrate. We really don’t think about the landscape that is under our skin but in order to activate senses that you are otherwise not aware of beyond what you’re looking at, I wanted people to kind of stop there in the darkness and just become a bit more aware of their own bodies while taking in the work.
"It’s almost like what people want to do with VR except this was analogue without any technology"
Then you stroll into the second chamber that I called Astral Gloria and that’s where you are blown away by a magnificent range of bright colours. First there is sound and you get used to it and immediately after that you bathe in this explosive rainbow effect. It has a cathedral-like tall ceiling with hair tails falling down, and you become more and more disoriented with your size and where the cave begins and ends when you look up. I put an island in the middle, also covered with hair, because I wanted people to be able to just lay down and space out while looking up and just really fill their entire visual field with the colours and textures of the synthetic hair extensions. I also figured out a way to mix the hair in a very particular way that made it feel like a 3-dimensional painting for me. And the soundscape inside Astral Gloria is a 24-channel recording that hits you in different places of the cave so that it’s not just one sound coming out of all the speakers; you never really hear a uniform sound or music, it’s ever-changing.
And once you’ve had time to relax in the colour bath, the last cave is called Opium Natura, that’s where you go to contemplate and cleanse but also let the colours continue to dwell inside of you in a more neutral toned environment with heavenly whites and pinks around you. It’s a cotton candy dreamland. The name is very much part of what I’m trying to accomplish, this feeling of a natural high. In the middle cave, Astral Gloria, your eyes have to try hard to figure it out and you can really space out. With the colours it’s almost like tripping on psychotropics, but without psychotropics. So it’s like a natural Opium. Just like the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain when you face a beautiful landscape or overwhelming natural phenomenas, I wanted to represent this in an imaginative way by creating a synthetic nature, but at the same time, a real analogue experience. Is it nature? Isn’t it nature? It is invented nature and the only way to imitate nature successfully is to almost exaggerate it out of this world. It’s a bit otherworldly.
Tell me about the soundscape and how you chose HAM. Yes, HAM created the soundscape for the whole piece. I chose them because they have been the soundtrack and soundscape in my studio for many many years and there is a certain energy that you get from listening to metal music. There is something about being in a band like that and also wanting to experience this sort of noise attack that has a very primal feeling and I think it has to do with the trembling of our innards, the trembling of our blood cells. The way that sound waves hit us and then you come home and the vibration is still going on in your ears, and you still have the sound echoing in your head from the vibration of your ear drums. I’ve been pregnant and it was mind-blowing to me when I was told that there is so much loud noise going on inside your body that the baby hears and I had no clue that it’s actually so busy and noisy in there. So I started to think that there is this whole soundscape that we hardly ever pay attention to and we don’t hear any of the sounds that are happening, except for when we have a gurgling in our stomach.
I should also say that they named their band HAM because in Iceland it means animal hide or fur. And ‘to go ham’ is to go berserk and ‘berserk’ can also translate to bear hide. So to go crazy, to go wild, to lose yourself in an animalistic kind of way, or giving up on being civilised, that’s the name of the band. And the art piece is also an inverted bear hide. So it just all fell into place and it felt like the natural decision to ask them to do it.
"I wanted to create a place to get away from all the world problems, but at the same time it may represent a lot of what you’re trying to get away from because the hair itself is this abundance of mass-produced material"
Besides the hair work, the music and sounds played a big part in putting me into a trance-like state – What kind of brief do you give a band for a soundtrack that accompanies a hair cave? Absolutely, I think the piece can really evoke some primitive feelings, where you feel embraced, and it’s very womb-like. There is also something to be said about the sub-terra feeling, and mother earth, and the earth being the womb. Especially growing up in Iceland; we live on a rock that is alive so there are murmurs and gurgling and explosions and volcanic activity and water bubbling. I grew up going to a sauna built on a non-erruptive geyser and that was always like *woob woob woob*. The sound of earth is very near us here in Iceland and after the earthquake and the eruption of the glacier Eyjafjallajökull a few years back, I was walking in the landscape in Iceland and I could feel and hear explosions underneath my feet deep in the earth. And it was almost like punching me under the soles of my feet and it felt really powerful. Like you’re walking on top of this beast that is the earth. It’s not a static, solid, not-changing-anytime-soon type of land. It’s very much alive, and breathing, and spewing and making noises. It feels intense in a way, but at the same time if that’s how you grow up then that’s the norm. So I think in that sense my work is really referencing the big cliché of Icelandic landscape being a major influence, and I cherish that and I welcome and honour it. It’s just the fact.
The band had never done any soundscape before, they were used to doing three minute songs. So they started by doing the Chromo Sapiens anthem and then went into doing more improvised things. So they came, the music was tweaked, and then they installed all the speakers and the way the sounds come out differently from each individual speaker. It’s not just one recording coming out of all speakers. They’re also positioned in a way where it hits you more on the chest more than in your ears, so it had to be fine-tuned by Skúli Sverrisson who is a master bass player and musician who produced the soundscape with the band. And Tim Glasgow and my husband designed the sound design in the caves, even using a programme to create the echo. Because the hair subdues the sound and because it’s a cave you want to have a certain echo chamber element to it, some reverb, and he found a layer that he could put onto the music that was actually recorded inside a three chamber cave, with two smaller ones and a big one. He just happened to stumble upon this particular effect that you can select to layer the music with so it sounds like it’s happening in this real three chamber cave. A lot of things like this just fell into place, it was magical. And then the band also had a concert at the opening where they played the anthem and some of their hits. People really went berserk so it was a full circle. It was pretty awesome. They didn’t even expect people to want to listen to more than two songs and I was like “Uhh you’re playing more!” Because you don’t listen to this music all the time, the onslaught of sound waves is bound to affect you. Either you walk away or you just kind of go into this tribal feeling, the drums, the ancient way of creating musical experiences.
When you bring music into an installation, what happens is that you add time. You add a sense of time because the work is static and the music is time-based. It adds time and movements and that’s what I wanted. It’s like when you have a really good soundtrack in a movie and you don’t really have to listen to it to feel it, it just kind of enhances whatever is going on. It brings another layer. I think that the music that I asked HAM to create is an art material. There is the hair, the lights, and the music, and these are the art materials of the piece. The music isn’t just a background entertainment thing; it’s a breathing beast-like thing, it’s an ancient rhythm. When I was in there for a long time I started thinking “this must be similar to the original music of the world”, it’s like an ancient murmur of the sub-terra core of the earth.
How long did it take to put all of this together? We worked in New York with a team of 20 interns, sometimes more, and we prepared these panels with hair on them, and then we brought those to Venice and it took tonnes more people to put it together. We were there installing it for two months with an army of Chromo Sapiens. We call ourselves ‘the Chromos’. *laughs* It took a little army to make this happen, to make it look the way I wanted it to look, and to solve problems. It’s basically hung like a giant tent, so I could do the irregularities of the surface. So it’s a giant net that’s pulled by ropes in different directions. It’s quite a beast.