TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand recently sat down with Icelandic performance artist and fashion designer Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (aka Shoplifter) the recent recipient of the Nordic Award in Textiles, and Seattle mixed media installation artist Mandy Greer to talk shop. Shoplifter recently visited Seattle in preparation for the Nordic Fashion Biennale to take place at the Seattle Nordic Heritage Museum. From September 30 – November 13, 2011, visitors can oggle jewelry and fashion from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. Famous for her commissioned work with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, her collaborations with Bjork, and her innovative sculptural work with hair, Shoplifter consistently takes on ideas of identity.

Jess Van Nostrand: What drives you to make what you make?

Family Portrait 2007 by Silja Magg

Family Portrait 2007 by Silja Magg

Shoplifter: I think it’s a life philosophy to choose to make things even if they don’t obviously make sense. And when you get encouragement and good feedback, its like “yes,” these things have a right to be in the world. I don’t think I could live without creating these things.  I think I would be a very miserable person, so I don’t feel like I have a choice. It’s a choice of profession that I made very early on. It’s about trying to reach some level of happiness in life.

Mandy Greer: I love the photo spread of you in your house with your family. I recently had to write a grant application for a foundation that was giving money to parents. I found that I was writing things down that I’ve never had to articulate before.

S: Being a parent is a huge part of who you are and what you do and how you do things, and at the same time it can be challenging for others to take it into account. It can create certain handicaps.

MG: So, how do you do it? What works?

S: First of all, I’m married to a fantastic guy. We both work independently and live in New York. We recently decided that we like to have our work close to home.  So we divided our large loft into 1,000 square feet for our home, 1,000 square feet for his work, and 1,000 square feet for my studio. I think having kids has allowed me to become more organized. It’s muc

h easier to prioritize. I’m lucky to have a lot of different people asking me to collaborate, but even though I feel capable of taking on a lot of different projects, I can’t allow myself to do them all. Having kids gives you a good reason to draw the line.

J: Does motherhood inform your work?

S: Yeah, it’s inevitable.  You know, this working with fiber, and this craft, heritage and the work of our foremothers of making things.

M: Like caretaking

S: Yes, like caretaking.

M: A couple of years ago, I had some pieces go to Miami for the big art fair and I took my son with me—he was very little—and I felt like I was being held back in what I could do, but when I stepped away from it, I realized that it kept me grounded instead of getting caught up in some of the culture of the art world, because a lot of that is not about the work, or about making the work.

S: My son was at one opening and he said, “I want to be in the show!” so I took him into the office of the gallery owner and let him decorate it. And he was telling everyone who worked at the gallery, “Take care of my art!”

J: How did your project with Bjork come about?

Medulla Hair Mask for Bjork

Medulla Hair Mask for Bjork

S: We had known each other for a while in Iceland and had mutual friends, and then I had my first solo show in NewYork, (ATM Gallery, New York, Shrine of my Vanity, Part II, 2003) and that was the first time I did a wall mural with hair. And I did these left brain/right brain pieces and she came to the opening, and shortly thereafter she asked me to help her create a character for the cover of an album, which would be made using only sounds of the human voice —basically only sounds coming from the body. So for her it really made sense that she would be wearing body fiber. She came up with the name Medulla and then we discovered that it’s also the word for the innermost layer of the hair shaft.

M: Had you worked with the body before that?

S: A long time ago in NY I did this performance I called the Human Hair Sculptress. I offered to do people’s hair where I talked to people about themselves as a hairstylist would, and then used that to inspire what I would do to their hair. I wouldn’t cut it but I would braid it, or sculpt it, like creating a wearable sculpture that had a level of kitsch to it. But there was more of an entertainment factor to it. And I was really excited to find a way to bring it into a freestanding artwork. So it all started with the body.

M: I love how you’ve previously spoken about how people have to make some kind of creative decision with their hair, even if it’s to shave it off.

S: Yeah, it’s a huge part of our identity, and it’s the part of us that’s the most animalistic because it grows there, and its kind of wild and we have to tame it. I’m just fascinated with it and I’ve been working with it for a long time.

Portrait of Oswolt Krel (detail) by Albrecht Dürer, 1499 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Portrait of Oswolt Krel (detail) by Albrecht Dürer, 1499 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

MG: One of my favorite pieces of yours is The Hairy Hunch. My husband is a bearded, hairy man, so we did some photography projects where were looking at the medieval woodwose, which is in early medieval painting, where these wild haired people appear in the corners and it’s tapping into…

S: That inner demon.

M: Yeah.  It’s a symbol of the animal side.

S: Yes, darkness, what’s hidden, what’s mysterious, what’s almost grotesque. The untamed and uncontrolled.

M: love the work you did with VPL fashion. I laughed at some of them because they were shocking – we live in this culture now where women are hairless.

S: Exactly – I’m totally making fun of that. I understand it, and I support it, but at the same time, like who wants to have a huge bikini, like a Brazilian that goes up to here?

J: How do you respond to questions about your identity?

S: I had a problem at first, when people wanted to analyze so much of what I do, like “Are you a designer, are you an artist?” I don’t want to have to choose. I’ve always been making clothes for myself, but I never really wanted to become a designer, but I loved to make these things. It was really like a conflict- a contradiction- and I’m learning to be really comfortable with this contradiction. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable.

MG: Do you feel like you know what you’re creating as you’re creating it? Or does that come later?

S: I’m still learning about my pieces myself. There are layers and layers of things that are in there, that I knew I put in there, but I didn’t dwell on analyzing it. I knew that, but it doesn’t have to be all packed up and ready to go with a manual that has all the information in it.

J: So, you’re circling around this why Do We Make Things question that the Project Room is addressing in its first year- so, what does drive you to keep making what you make? Are there different reasons, or is it this idea you’ve talked about that you want to learn things along the way?

S: I’m searching for beauty, but I’m also searching for beauty in grotesque things, so it’s not just about beautiful things but about putting together different elements in order to better understand them. And I know that in the end it all goes together, because it all comes from my brain. You can get ideas from such weird places and in different combinations, and you just trust that its going to build into something that will eventually have something to say. I’ve learned to trust that feeling because I’ve seen it work in the past. I’ve proven to myself that what I want to make comes from this blob that is me thinking. And so I don’t have to understand the connections I’m making even though later, I might say, “Oh! Its so obvious.” They’re really intuitive, organic, and I’m really just trusting that the project is going to land on its own two feet.


Looking Back to Find Our Future: An Exhibition of Nordic Fashion, Design and Jewelry, curated by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, WA, September 30 – November 13, 2011: