We talked to London-based artist Tenant of Culture about the utility and omnipresence of fashion, creation of waste and what freedom interdisciplinarity can offer.
Working mainly with found and discarded objects, Hendrickje Schimmel, the woman behind Tenant of Culture, investigates mechanisms of society and its power structures. Coming from a background in fashion, she also graduated in mixed media from the London Royal College of Art and now pursues a practice that beautifully puts her pieces within the fields of art and fashion. Essentially being a rag-picker of mass-media or media-industrial production the artist acknowledges the pre-existing lives of materials and sees recycling as a form of activism. An Interview by Julius Pristauz.
Having graduated in Fashion Design and Mixed Media, when did you first start working with garments as a material for your art? What made you stick to it?
My first ever love was fashion. As a kid, I was always drawing models wearing extravagant outfits. Inspired by the dramatic fashion signature to the turn of the century, I copied the looks I saw at Alexander McQueen and Galliano. When I was 18, I went to fashion school and was confronted with the ambiguous technicalities of the industry and what it meant to work as a fashion designer. My naive dream bubble bursted. At that point, fashion as a phenomenon rather than an industry became interesting to me. Clothes and the way they exist in the world became something to investigate. What disturbed me the most was the wastefulness and the eternal search for the ‘new’. Not knowing where to go with this take on making clothes I started to think of alternative ways of pursuing a fashion practice. Garments remained a consistent factor but the context and execution shifted.
In general, but also related to your own work, when does fashion become art or is fashion always art?
I think what is great about fashion is that it relates to everyone. Everyone gets dressed, makes decisions on how they look, accessorizes and decides how they want to be perceived. It is an everyday tool, employed by young and old, all over the world. No matter how frivolous you think fashion is, you still have to get dressed. Regarding the initial functions of clothes - protection from the elements by creating a barrier between the skin and the environment, they are literally the layer between us and the rest. So I don’t think fashion is art, as it’s so utilitarian and omnipresent. I do however think that you can use garments in an artistic practice without it immediately being fashion, examining its functions as a commodity and reflecting upon fashion as a phenomenon. Fashion as a phenomenon goes far beyond clothes, influencing not only the way we dress but also what we eat, where we live, politics, morality, everything is a subject to trends. Fashion doesn’t have to be art to be interesting, or intellectually engaging.
Do you separate fashion from art? If so, how does this separation manifest itself?
I am not too concerned with the separation between the two, I present wearables in the exhibition space, sculptures in editorials. The practical difference between working in art or fashion is that I don’t produce, sell in shops, work in seasons. So besides my work sometimes being wearable it doesn’t have many other characteristics of a fashion label. I get asked this question a lot and in general, I hesitate to give a clear answer. The ambiguity surrounding an interdisciplinary practice means confusion but also freedom.
Your work deals with the structures behind the creation of waste. Do you see your practice as recycling or upcycling?
One of the questions I continuously ask myself is: How do we determine what should be saved, restored, protected and preserved? Considering all the possible death scenarios of a commodity ranging from institutional (death by representation) to organic (decay) and everything in between. I see my position as an artist like that of a post-producer or rag-picker. This is reflected in the name of my practice: “Tenant of Culture”. Borrowing the term from Michel de Certau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life”, who used it to describe the responsibility of the artist as that of the post-producer, shifting through the endless stream of information and impressions provided by daily life. I like to acknowledge the pre-existing lives of the material. Regarding my interventions as cyclical rather than conclusive. I find it interesting to explore aesthetics that deal with the dirty and the old, the homemade and the clumsy. I give workshops on recycling garments sometimes, as I don’t think I can claim the aesthetic of recycling as an autonomous style. It is something anybody can do and re-making clothes together is so much fun. In itself recycling and upcycling is a very anti-capitalist activity and can be regarded as a form of activism.
What qualities must an item have to become part of your work? What does your selection process look like?
I am naturally attracted to garments that look like they’ve been through a lot. Often quite mundane everyday garments as I am interested in everybody’s clothes rather than exclusive garments. I experiment with how far I can push it dirt wise. It is very funny to see how people respond to a sweaty sock or a dirty towel. There is also a problematic side to appropriating waste, especially in a fashion context. Thinking of John Galliano’s infamous show for Dior in 2000 where he looked at the hobos on the streets of Paris and translated their ‘style’ into an haute couture show. I reference the waste of the industry itself in my work, looking at landfills, dead stock, etc. But there’s also a very intimate and bodily side to dirt, stains, debris and grime. Every household and corporeal body deals with it and keeping things clean and tidy, fighting the dust and dirt that makes it into our carpets and clothes, is an activity often associated with femininity.
How important is it to you that the viewer can understand what your starting points were? It somehow seems like you do care about the recognizability of the separate parts in the end.
I like it when you can still see the original garments or objects in the new constellation. As I said earlier, I like my interventions to be cyclical rather than conclusive. I do this to emphasize on the fact that I take the position of a ‘tenant of culture’ using existing references throughout my work. Culture is a collective experience, capitalism has made it a profitable and competitive one. Using labels like Nike in my work is a nod to the monster brands dominating the industry and in stark contrast with the human scale of recycling.
When looking at your materials it becomes clear that not only fashion but also things like the body of the mannequin, pedestals and skeletons are equal parts of the pieces. Could you imagine your creations being worn too?
Fashion’s supporting structures inspire me. I am endlessly fascinated by high street shop displays, but also charity shop displays. The shop mannequin is an allegory that doesn’t need explaining. By referencing the retail environment, thematically decorated with props, follies and mannequins I want to narrate the viewer through the ambiguous undercurrents of the fashion industries nostalgia and appropriation, dream image, luxury and fleetingness. My creations can be worn but they are produced in a very DIY way and would not be suitable for shops or production. I sell my garments as wearable if somebody makes a personal request, which usually comes out of an interest in my general practice. I like to give people the option between wearable and sculptural, what happens to my work after I’ve made it is out of my control.
Your last show at Sarabande Foundation included objects like gloves or pants that have been worn by workers or even plants that grow out of concrete. All these parts induce associations with time, process and the working world. What is your intention behind that?
Time is an important subject in my work that is referenced in aged clothes and objects but also in the transient nature of fashion, in the sense of seasons and trends. Dust and dirt are the opposites of trend, as dust settles on everything that’s been still for too long and trends move on to something new before you can even reach them. I like this contradiction. The same works for archives - time stands still in the archive, naturally but also artificially by processes of preservation. I was once reading the textiles conservators manual and it said something like “the conservator’s task is to arrest the process of decay”. This was immediately very visual to me and I have tried to capture this ‘stillness’ that is beautiful and scary in some of my pieces. There is something cruel about preservation. Jean Baudrillard regards it as the artificial death of the object, the moment where it becomes a representation of itself. The stained gloves, trousers and overcoat were an exploration of the poetical potential of waste. Regarding rubbish as a negotiator between the transient and the durable, taking the position of an anti-archive. Mapping out what had to be discarded in order to create something, value cannot be created without creating non-value.