Shoplifter’s Hairiest Situation Yet

Photo by Michal Jurewicz


You won’t find Kanekalon, a synthetic fiber commonly used in artificial hair, on many checklists—which is just part of the reason it’s the chief material in New York-based Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardottir’s site-specific Nervescape, commissioned by Alanna Heiss for the Clocktower Gallery [through Sept. 4]. Arnardottir (who frequently goes under the moniker Shoplifter) has long used artificial hair in sculpture, performance and wearable art, including the hair sculpture that Björk wears on the cover of her 2004 album Medulla. Arnardottir uses artificial hair (among other materials) to explore issues of desire, bodily adornment, vanity and naturalism. Nervescape is her largest sculpture to date, and a major extension of her idiosyncratic oeuvre.

Deep blue, brown, green and vibrant yellow predominate in this towering soft wall of cascading fake hair, built upon a preexisting metal structure. The hair takes over the architecture while making for a work that’s inviting and surprisingly meditative. You want to look at it, but also to be with the riot of colors in a million strands. You want to touch it (which you can), enter it (which you also can) and let its mysterious power envelop you.

Arnardottir’s supple work seems organic, and also geological: she calls it a “landscape,” even a landscape painting, without paint. You think of caves, grottoes and fairy-tale lairs where magical creatures live. Arnardottir’s work inside the gallery resonates, however obliquely, with the landscape of her homeland: its wind and flowing water, cliffs and lava formations, glaciers and volcanic eruptions.

Nervescape doubles as an inspired collaboration with Kria Brekkan (aka Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir), an Icelandic vocalist with an enchanting soprano voice. She is also a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and former mainstay of the band múm. Arnardottir invited Brekkan to create a sound piece and performance in response to the work. “We wanted the sculpture to contain the sound, and for the sound to be emanating from the sculpture,” Arnardottir told A.i.A. “It is a soundscape with a landscape—that is a nervescape.”

On opening night, with no fanfare or announcement, Brekkan suddenly emerged, or rather slithered, from the work, dressed in hair and clutching a microphone. For hours she lay, crouched, crawled and climbed up the sculpture, sometimes disappearing into it. She improvised vocal wordless music, using a special keyboard linked to a hidden computer to mix sounds and send them through eight hidden loudspeakers.

“The idea is that she comes alive and she brings out this landscape,” Brekkan told A.i.A. “She disappears, and then all these shifts happen, very minimally. The clock strikes, and she comes out again, and changes the landscape. And then disappears again.”

What resulted was a shifting sonic environment, in turn thrilling, mournful, whimsical, contemplative, airy and severe, which exquisitely blended with Arnardottir’s sculpture.

Arnardottir says, “Kria is also like a blood cell of this beast. Almost like this organism is one entity, and she is this entity, but she can separate herself from it, like an amoeba.”

Several days later the improvisatory performance was staged anew, to wonderful effect. The sculpture, with sound and performance, seemed like an excursion: outward to distant landscapes, inward to the depths of the psyche, deep into mysteries. What viewers now encounter is Arnardottir’s sculpture coupled with a recording of Brekkan’s vocal performance.