“Chromo Sapiens”: Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir/Shoplifter’s installation at the 58th Venice Biennale

10.09. 2019

The Icelandic pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale features Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir/Shoplifter’s installation Chromo Sapiens, an astonishing hair cave, a monstrous but at the same time a soft and colourful being which embraces the visitors into its warm and comfortable interior.

Chromo Sapiens is structured in three different sections representing a metaphorical evolution from Homo Sapiens to “Chromo Sapiens”, a journey conducted through exposure to different tones of colours prompts an escalation of emotional responses in the visitors. Dark tones predominate the first section of the installation; Primal Opus, which recalls the inside of a volcano, or a rock cave, elements of raw Icelandic nature: our adventure starts in the deep inside of earth, as primitive beings. Walking into the second section; Astral Gloria, an explosion of neon bright colours takes place around us, instantaneously we can feel our senses activated, curiosity and excitement take over our spirit, yet we realise how powerful colours can be and how much energy we can get from them. Colours fade to white and light pastel tones in the third and last section; in Opium Natura, calm floods our body as we experience an ecstatic moment of pure elevation of the soul and achieved awareness of the process we have been conducted through. 

Chromo Sapiens is a fully immersive installation, it acts on three of our senses: the colours mutating from room to room feed our eyes, the installation is soft at the touch, and the Icelandic metal band HAM’s 24 channel surround sound piece accompanies our experience activating both our ears and our bodies with powerful deep bases: the sound waves resonate as if they were coming from inside our own organism, the piece extends inwards into our body.

While Shoplifter’s previous works usually consisted of a single jungle-like installation of bright coloured furry elements, it is interesting to see that Chromo Sapiens broke the uniformity of her previous shows, and articulated a journey of experiences through the work, an exciting evolvement through different steps. The installation makes use of different colours and music to prompt diverse reactions in the viewers, and in this regard it recalls Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and the masters of the beginning of the last century who had studied the symbolic meaning of colours and shapes, as well as their effects on human beings. Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir/Shoplifter’s work seems in a way a tridimensional development of their bidimensional experimentations. 

Beside colours, the overwhelming size of the installation and the material Shoplifter uses play an important role in her work and in the experience of the viewer. However, this furry and immersive artwork comes with a dark side: the whole installation is made of synthetic hair, a quite important detail which arises concerns about the environmental impact of the work. Shoplifter’s installations are supposed to “evoke the desire to return to nature in a modern culture where we are drowning in artificial matter”[1] , but is it worth using a ton of plastic which will contribute to the environmental issues our planet is facing? 

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter.

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter.

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Photo: Ugo Carmeni © Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter.

Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir © Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter. 

The climate crisis is the most pressing global emergency today, and it has modified the individuals’ approaches to plastic materials, arising a consciousness of the waste production at a global level. Being an artist and having the opportunity to take part at the Venice biennale means having the chance to convey a message to the world, what message is the installation communicating? Even though not every artist has to adopt a political or social focus in the work, I strongly believe every action we take in the world is political, and artists do have a certain responsibility over their actions and the material they decide to use. 

This installation prompts bitter-sweet feelings in the viewers, it satisfies our senses while we are there but then we walk away with these concerns and thoughts in our heads. However, Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir/Shoplifter explained to me that she started to use synthetic material when she felt the need to make bigger installations, and synthetic material meets the characteristic she needed for this purpose: it is easier to get, it costs less and allows her to play more with colours. She also assures that she recycles and reuses the material for different site specific installation, since it morphs and it can be manipulated easily. 

The press release of the pavilion states that “Chromo Sapiens is a visceral work: it evokes one’s desire to return to nature in a modern culture that is overwhelmed by artificial matters. […] The artist explores society’s obsession with beautification juxtaposed with its fascination with the grotesque”[2] . Unfortunately the artist’s intentions are undercurrent to the powerful installation which dominates viewers’ experience: such a powerful and overwhelming installation leaves little space to engage in an active critic, creating a gap between what the artist wants to communicate through her work and what the viewers read in it. The Venice Biennial is a great yet hard platform for artists, in fact it is one of the biggest shows in the world, visitors get overwhelmed by the huge amount of artworks they are exposed to, and in order for an artist to stand out in amongst the others and to be noticed, the artwork needs to be really impressive. Chromo Sapiens does its job, it has got a good international coverage and it is mentioned as one of the must-see pavilions of this year’s Venice Biennial in several articles, however it often ends up to be experienced as an enjoyable exaltation of the artificial and of the pop culture, a colourful and physical sensations fest, a totalising and fully positive experience, while the artists’ comments on the modern day society are often overlooked.

 

Ana Victoria Bruno


[1]- http://icelandicartcenter.is/projects/venice-biennale/hrafnhildur-arnardottir-shoplifter-represents-iceland-at-58th-venice-biennale/ 

[2] The press release can be read here: https://www.invenicetoday.com/en/exhibitions/Biennale/Icelandic-Pavilion-Iceland-Venice-Biennale-of-Art.htm#.XWzdyS2cY6U

Cover photo: Installation view of Chromo Sapiens, the Icelandic Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. Photo: Ugo Carmeni © Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir / Shoplifter.

The Venice Biennale runs to  November the 24th, 2019. The Icelandic Pavilion is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 12:00 t0 18:00 at Spazio Punch, Giudecca 800.