November 2009, Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (Shoplifter) @ Trolley Gallery

Clockwise from top, left: Vanity Beast from Hell, 2009, human and synthetic hair, polyeurathane and glass 149 x 96 x 19 cm / 58 x 38 x 7 1⁄2 inch;
BURN (detail), 2009, synthetic hair on wood 190 x 174 x 8 cm / 75 x 68 1⁄2 inch;
BURN, 2009, synthetic hair on wood 190 x 174 x 8 cm / 75 x 68 1⁄2 inch; Vanity Disorder, 2009 coloured human hair dimensions variable


Hrafnhildur Arnardottir aka Shoplifter, Burn at Trolley Gallery
73a Redchurch Street
London, E2 7DJ
8 October through 14 November

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir's first name means ‘war of the ravens’ in Icelandic, and her surname means ‘daughter of the eagles'. She took on the alias 'Shoplifter' when she was mistakenly called so by a tourist who mispronounced her name. This case of mistaken identity relates to her interest in personal mythologies, something she is constantly exploring and developing in her work through a combination of synthetic and natural materials. Traditionally trained as a painter, Shoplifter first became interested in hair as a material when she visited an antique shop in Iceland and found a piece, shaped like a flower, encased in a glass container. She began to use it prominently in her work, and has even constructed a hairpiece for Björk's Medulla album cover. (It is perhaps unsurprising that an artist whose name is so closely linked with the avian species, might have an interest in hair, as both feathers and hair are strongly linked with identity for both birds and mammals alike.)  

In Burn, the artist's first solo show in London, held at Trolley Gallery, her explorations are conducted through sculpture and delicate watercolours. The exhibition space has been transformed into a dark, charred landscape, painted black to evoke a cave or dark hunting lodge - references implicated by the sculptures installed in the main space. A woven hair work has been installed in Trolley’s front window: Burn (2009), from which this exhibition takes its title, recalls a recent collaboration produced for MoMA, New York along with a.v.a.f., entitled aimez vous avec fervour (2008-2009), a multi-coloured woven synthetic hair piece combined with neon lights, the first in Shoplifters’ series of wall-mounted hair compositions. The piece produced for Trolley gives an early indication of the constructed environment one will encounter within the gallery. Fabricated from orange, black and yellow hair woven and tufted onto a board, the appearance is of a log whose flame has recently been extinguished, yet is still glowing brightly, setting the scene for the blackened landscape of the first room.  

Immediately upon entering, one is confronted by Vanity Beast from Hell (2009) which, on first glance, appears to be a bearskin rug. Upon closer inspection this object reveals itself to be a bear’s head rendered with intricately plaited human and synthetic hair, like that used to produce cheap cornrows. Combined with glaring glass eyes, the effect is quite disconcerting. Shoplifter has defamiliarised this 'bearskin' from viewers’ accepted notions by sharply juxtaposing references to urban and rural identities. Hair has been used to other effects throughout the room. Strips of it in autumnal colours - maroons, golds, deep oranges, browns - and florescent pink, have been linked in geometric patterns on the walls and floor to produce Vanity Disorder (2009), a work reminiscent of cave paintings. Although the formal basis of this work may stem from an affinity to abstract expressionism, its title calls into question the relationship of vanity to contemporary culture and, more specifically, the notion of vanity as something beyond our control, an addiction of sorts. Across the room and in stark contrast to this piece sits When the Night Falls (2009). Its rectangular form, constructed solely of black human hair with a protruding black tree limb, further confounds the eerie landscape in which these pieces dwell. 


Fluffy, 2009, watercolour in paper, framed, 64 x 48.5 cm / 25 x 19 in

The second room of Burn contains works that are more formal in nature. If the works in the first room were to set the scene for Shoplifters’ personal narrative, then these works help to identify the characters that occupy that landscape. Pale watercolours of artic monsters have been given affable titles such as Filings, Amoeba and Fluffy (2009) – none of which are likely to incite fear or anxiety, yet contribute to an increasingly disorienting psychological realm. These watercolours are accompanied by Cluster and Raw Nerves, grapevines painted and black and white, and red, respectively. They have been mounted on the walls just above eye-level, calling to mind strange ice-formations as well as some of the tentacular forms employed in the hair sculptures. Black Comet, Orange Moon, and Ursa Minor (2009) allude both to painting and sculpture, yet avoid fixed identification with either. Perfect circles, these works are produced entirely of synthetic hair which has been plaited and woven into intricate compositions, ultimately forming solid blocks of colour. Their titles and varying sizes expand the exhibition's narrative to a cosmic scale.  

Shoplifter has said of her work, “Vanity is to a different extent on the surface of my work and sometimes it appears only vaguely or in an abstract way, but it plays a role whether it is visible in the work or only in the air when I make it. […] I really respect the human need to decorate oneself and one’s environment, be it driven by vanity and obsession or sincere love for beauty, which in and of itself is vanity at its best.” The pieces in Burn, as she states, represent this interest in vanity to one degree or another. Theoretically guided by the predominant use of hair with its inherent cultural associations, each piece plays a role in constructing a specific environment wherein identity, vanity, and landscape are linked in absurd ways. What is ultimately most disconcerting for the viewer is a realisation that these elements play a greater role in the construction of our own personal environments than one would like to believe. 

Claire Shea

Claire Shea is currently Curator at the Cass Sculpture Foundation in Goodwood, West Sussex, who is based in London. She previously worked as the Internship Coordinator for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy following a Master’s Degree in Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s Education in London.


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