TENANT OF CULTURE
in conversation with Madeleine Holth
Known as Tenant of Culture, the Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmel is no stranger to the intricate cobweb of fashion. With an MA in design and textiles from London’s Royal College of Art, Schimmel has since shifted her postgrad focus towards alternative horizons in the fashion sphere, where ideas such as waste, the life cycles of clothes, and garment de- and reconstruction have triumphed over the more traditional path of fashion design graduates. The result is a hybrid art practice that involves an intriguing agglomeration of the familiar: mixed media sculptures that crystallize her philosophy of fashion objects as consumer relics in the third dimension.
Tenant of Culture — a term of responsibility borrowed from French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life — is both the name of Schimmel’s fashion/art practice and her most recent publication, a self-titled monograph published in collaboration with Charles Asprey and Soft Opening, the West End gallery of London curator Antonia Marsh. With its first edition sold out and a reprint in the works for 2021, Tenant of Culturechallenges the notions of what an art book can be, with various paper qualities and inspirations drawn from the format of the fashion magazine and the traditions of product photography. Alongside an essay by the Danish curator Jeppe Ugelvig and a conversation with curatorial duo 650mAh, the book offers an extended opportunity to gaze at Schimmel’s work in ways that allow the viewer to interpret her fossilised garments on a personal and emotional level.
Topics such as waste, a garment’s ‘DNA’, collective garment workshops, improvisation and consumption were on Schimmel’s mind as she spoke to Madeleine Holth about this evolving body of work.
How does the creative process start for you? Is it in the garment or the blooming idea of the structure it can have? Or perhaps the structure it cannot have?
Besides ongoing theoretical research, my making process really starts from the actual garment. Every piece I work with is different and requires a different technique for its de- and re-construction. Workwear for example, takes force and patience as it is designed to be durable. Whereas lighter items and cheaply produced items come apart without much effort. This stage in my process is where I start to gather information about the garment and its method of design, assembly and use. Every time you take something apart there are unexpected marks within the material such as handwritten instructions straight from the assembly line, uneven stitches, hairs trapped in lining or sweat stains. A story unfolds that is beyond my control and that narrative is really where the work begins.
Has fashion consumption reached its absolute peak? What are your thoughts on fashion consumption à la 2020?
I’m afraid that it hasn’t reached its peak yet. The industry keeps growing by approximately 6% each year. It has been a long and complex process to reach the speed and ease of textile and retail production that we operate with now, but the real acceleration started in the 1980s with increasing global trade liberations. The global industry serves the political interests of the countries that have pushed the outsourcing of production to lower-income countries under the ideology of the free market. Therefore I don’t want to focus my work too much on individual consumer responsibility as this has a lot of socio-economic implications. New ways of consuming are easy to propose for a demographic that has the means to pursue it, but it’s not realistic to ask this of everyone. Shifting the blame to the consumer is the strategy of the producing entities. In order to rethink consumption, we should begin by understanding the hierarchical relationship between supply and demand.
Like Ugelvig explains in his essay, there’s something almost fossilised about your work — like the remains of our wearable history and at times even emotionally-triggering garments. What sparked this idea, to encapsulate items that would eventually be discarded?
The choice to work with second-hand garments is the culmination of multiple ideas. It was a cheap option for sourcing a wide range of materials when I was studying, but I’ve also always found it more interesting to depart from something pre-existing — it’s easier in a sense, less intimidating. When I decided to make this process a methodology in my practice, I started to understand more about the implications of ‘ex-nihilo’ artistic production. Then it also became a conceptual statement against the territorial aspects of heroic autonomy, the artist who seemingly produces without any interruptions or influences. I am interested in the porosity of working with pre-used materials, to acknowledge my transient position in the lifecycle of an object.
The birth and death of a garment is an interesting conversation. What is your theory on the shelf life and ‘wear life’ of a garment?
Birth and death are interesting metaphors to describe the lifecycle of a garment, physically and symbolically, as both play an important role in how we understand fashion. I am interested, for example, in the economic strategy of planned obsolescence. This is the notion that the majority of products that are produced today already have their end-date programmed within their physical DNA. It’s really a design decision: a product is only as strong as its weakest component. If a bad quality yarn is used to stitch a garment together, it can’t last beyond a certain time. The same thing happens psychologically in the form of trends. A garment that is designed to be very trendy will seem obsolete for the wearer in a short time. These strategies were invented to shorten the replacement cycle of products and have been implemented since the 1950s, but I think we have internalised them as mechanisms that define us. It is difficult to unlearn such notions of temporality and contingency in relation to physical objects, but in my practice, I attempt to create a material understanding of these concepts.
Deadstock (series), 2018. Recycled handbags, scrap leather, thread, styrofoam, steel, cement.
Where does this interest in fashion production stem from? I know you have a design degree, but I’m curious if you found yourself particularly interested in the journey towards the end product which they vigorously teach at fashion school?
My interest in the journey of a garment indeed stems from my fashion and textile education and professional experience working for brands. As I felt more critical towards the industry, I became more interested in its start to finish production but also in the political and social history of global textile and apparel production. I think fashion is too often regarded and processed as image-only, I prefer to focus on its materiality and methods rather than on how its end product is positioned and perceived. Even in fashion theory, the garment is discussed only in its relation to trend and its cultural significance, as something ephemeral and fleeting. I wanted to make work about fashion that is tangible, weighty and almost abject, to attempt to create an embodied understanding of the subject.
Perhaps you can explain your garment-making workshops?
My workshops are indeed very important but also really fun. When I find a place to host a workshop, I use the walk-in format. Anyone can come at any time and participate, which can result in anything from an intimate setting of two participants to a wild day of 50 people in a space. In these workshops, we start off with the deconstruction of second hand donated garments or clothing the participants bring themselves. We use various improvisational and traditional methods of garment making to reconstruct clothing or textiles. I try not to focus on the end product but really on the conversations and relationships that start to occur during these days. It’s intriguing to see how hesitant people are to take apart a garment, especially if it’s branded. There’s a very strange loyalty to this finished product. All these small shifts in awareness about the clothes we wear are what I would like to achieve during these workshops, eventually reinstating an intimacy with a garment and the way it is constructed.
What improvisational challenges do you face when working with something that is already structured and has its final form? How do you work with pushing it to a new dimension when it’s not on its original trajectory?
My aim is to alter an existing garment to a stage where it says something about its essence, yet utilising the ingredients that are already there. The best part of this is that you never know what you are going to find once you’ve sliced open a piece. Improvisation is an important aspect of my working method as you can’t really plan ahead for what you will find. Conceptually the improvisation part also matters as it’s a way for me to push against structural strategies of mass production and abstraction of labour that are prevalent in the apparel industry.
Do you work with waste or do you work with fashion? I’m curious to hear more about categorisation through your process?
That’s a very interesting question! I think the categorisation itself is one of the subjects I aim to address in my practice. In my work I examine this dynamic: how do we determine what to save, protect and preserve and what can decompose and rot? The objects I work with would technically not qualify as waste as they are still in circulation. They are part of what I call the secondary market. This word is actually used differently in economics but I employ it to define the market of all that is expelled from the realm of newness but is not by any means waste. Second-hand sounds too innocent for me as it highlights individual usage only, it makes it seem as if it concerns a gift or charitable donation. Even though this is a part of the secondary market, it is also an industry in itself. Clothes we consider waste don’t just end up in a charity shop, they become bulky, problematic entities that conglomerate elsewhere, out of sight, implementing themselves in new economic entanglements. I don’t source my materials from landfill even though I sometimes incorporate aspects of garments I have found on the street or in the trash. Most of my material is as good as new, yet rejected.
Words by Madeleine Holth