Making Impractical: Ýrúrarí Interviewed by Zach Davidson

Redesigning and repurposing sweaters.

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Ýrúrarí, hand sleeve, 2019. Detail of “the sketch sweater,” an old sweater from New York City that became a sketch sweater, similar to how artists use sketch books. Part of the Svona myndi ég ekki gera exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.

In his novel Autoportrait, Édouard Levé writes, “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue.” When I look at the knitted tongues on the sweaters redesigned by the artist Ýrúrarí, I think of strawberries. Ýrúrarí is a multimedia artist whose primary medium is sweaters—sweaters, as she says, are her canvas. Ýrúrarí uses second-hand sweaters to consider concepts of recyclability, fashion, narrative, and commerce. The interconnectedness of these concepts is manifested quite literally in the warp and weft of her art. Videos and images of her vivid, tactile sweaters on Instagram, where she has over twenty thousand followers, testify to Ýrúrarí’s status as a burgeoning textile pop artist.

—Zach Davidson

 Zach Davidson Svona myndi ég ekki gera (“I would not do something like that”)—how does the title of your show relate to the art you’re exhibiting?

Ýrúrarí I’m taking old things, sweaters, and I’m dismantling them, taking off the loops and taking them apart. I’m ruining them. I’m putting big holes in them. I’m treating them in different ways than the sweaters you saw in New York. Now, it’s more like I’m taking their DNA and splicing things into them.

ZD I, personally, would not do something like that.

Ý (laughter) Right. It’s something people would feel is wrong. A sweater is something you should wear. You should be warm. It has particular things about it. Traditional cable-knit sweaters, Icelandic traditional sweaters, Norwegian traditional sweaters—I’m breaking these things that have been going with the rules for years, going by a pattern.

ZD Patterns like the norms of society.

Ý Yeah, and I’m making them impractical. I’m ruining on purpose what they were meant to do. I’ve also been hearing people saying this to me. A friend of mine who’s working in a school was wearing one of my sweaters, and a mom came to pick her child up, and she asked, “Where did you get that sweater? I just tried on this sweater last week, but it didn’t look like this.” My friend said she got it from a friend who takes old sweaters and decorates them. And the response was that the mom wouldn’t do this or didn’t get that idea.  

ZD What do you perceive the relationship to be between destruction and recyclability? 

Ý It’s always practical—everything I make. I’m stepping away from that. Still, I think all the things I’m making are usable. The sweater I’m taking apart now, you could wear it. But it’s not going to be warm. 

I have another sweater, a flower sweater that I bought in New York. That one I’m going to really take apart. I’m going to take the sleeve and put the end of the sleeve in a frame, and then I will add some things. The idea is that sweaters are not considered art. That’s why I’m taking it apart and putting it in many frames, and then I’m going to put a really high price on it. (laughter)

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Ýrúrarí, tongue sweater, 2018. Upcycled sweater made for a design exhibition in Iceland. This sweater is part of a love/heartbreak trio and is called “Ást.” Courtesy of the artist.

ZD Where do you go to get the sweaters you use for you art?

Ý I’ve got a good collaboration with the Red Cross in Iceland. They give me sweaters that are too ruined to sell. They have holes in them or stains. It makes sense to work with those sweaters. 

ZD What are you responding to when you think a sweater could be your canvas?

Ý I’m always checking what they’re made out of, because I really want them to be good quality, especially if I’m going to sell them. I’ve never bought an H&M sweater or a Forever 21 sweater. I don’t want to come close to it. (laughter) If I spend forty hours fixing it, but then it just falls apart anyway, like, next week, it’s not worth it. It’s mostly just the material. And also I don’t like those companies. 

ZD What materials do you prefer to work with?

Ý I always like wool. That’s my favorite, I think. Cotton. I don’t like acrylic things. I think it’s because of studying textiles, and acrylic … yuck. You just don’t use it. It’s fake material. The process of it is really bad for the environment. Like plastic. Also, when you put it on your head, your hair …

ZD Gets frizzy?

Ý Yeah, yeah. And then the touch of it is just not as nice.

ZD How did you get into revising sweaters? 

Ý They’re a fun canvas because you can wear it and move in it. I always like to think about movement. You have the sleeves. The back and front. As you might have seen on the videos I’ve put on Instagram, I always like it when you can do some tricks with your sweaters. That’s part of the hard thing when putting up an exhibition—it’s going to be very still. 

ZD What about a fashion show?

Ý I don’t want to do it because I’m also going to be putting sweaters in frames. You can’t wear everything. (laughter) 

ZD People could wear frames. Attach frames to people in their drywall suits?

Ý (laughter) Yeah.

ZD How has social media figured into your art?

Ý I’m getting really confused with Instagram. I’m trying to back away from it and do whatever I want. There are a lot of people trying to get something for free from me. But I’ve also gotten some very cool responses. Like Erykah Badu. Like people writing to pay and to compliment me on things, and to be respectful, like you. It’s an interesting place. But it’s a really demanding one. 

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Ýrúrarí, hole sweater, 2019. “Op.1” sweater made for the Svona myndi ég ekki gera exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.

ZD Do you use machines to assist you with the redesigning of your sweaters? 

Ý I actually just got an email, popping on my screen. They’re going to ship me a machine from China this winter. It’s a digital knitting machine that you can have at home. You don’t need to be a professional knitting machine master to use it. But my mind is in a totally different place right now. I don’t want to mass-produce anything. So I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the machine. We have so much stuff. We don’t need more of it. 

ZD This seems to be one of the principles of your art—not to make more, but to make what we have different. Like Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization. To render the commonplace strange. 

Ý Yeah, yeah! 

ZD You’ve made a pattern book of your sweaters. 

Ý I came out with a book, Sleik-zine. It means “making out” in Icelandic. In New York, I just gave the book away. Now I’ve gotten to see things coming out of it. Now people have almost the same sweaters, but they’ve made them for themselves. 

ZD How does that feel for you? To see people re-creating your designs?

Ý It feels good, actually. Because I saved a lot of time from doing the same thing again. (laughter)  This was something I stressed about—doing the same thing again and again and again and again. 

ZD Yet you’ve mentioned that the repetitive nature of knitting is calming.

Ý But that’s on the knitting machine. It’s a different ceremony. I would not want to hand-knit the same thing again and again.

ZD Tongues appear to be a recurring motif in your work. Do you identify any others?

Ý Always body parts. I don’t know why. ZD Does the sweater that you choose inspire the design? Or do you have the design in mind first before you pick the sweater?

Ý It’s different. Sometimes I do smaller sketches on a sweater, on a sketch sweater, and then bring it to a sweater that I think suits it.

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Ýrúrarí, zigzag knit piece, 2018. A machine-knitted piece from a line of machine knits called “matters.” Courtesy of the artist.

ZDYou’re also a member of an art collective—CGFC.

Ý Yes, we do more performance-based shows. We just got into the biggest theater in Iceland. We’ve got a project there in October. It’s about potatoes. We put down potatoes two weeks ago, and we’ll take them back in the autumn. The project is going to be about the traveling of the potato in the society we live in now.

The first show we did was in Norway for a festival. We made a fake application about a fake show—a live-drama-live-knitting radio show. We did it on stage, but it was broadcast on the radio. We also did live sounds. It was not our best show, but it was the beginning.

Ýrúrarí: Svona myndi ég ekki gera (“I would not do something like that”) is on view at Gallery Port in Reykjavík, Iceland, until August 20.

Zach Davidson is a writer and editor. He lives in the Bronx.

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