What does it mean to get wasted?
Hendrickje Schimmel calls her practice Tenant of Culture in order to flip the typical tendency for fashion industry outlets to present themselves as ‘houses’ or ‘ateliers’. Rather than suggesting a master artisan, Tenant of Culture brings to mind someone who merely rents their art.
As Schimmel has explained in several interviews, the reference is to cultural historian Michel de Certeau’s explorations of renters operating within larger structures that uphold them through an asymmetric position of reliance. Grand institutions draw rents from participants with whom they can only interact on lopsided terms. Through both this moniker and her working materials, ToC aims to put glamour’s underbelly on full display. This is the view from the one who pays the rent.
ToC’s work achieves a reversal of fashion industry norms through a retrieval of beauty from the waste generated in untold tonnage every year. She works primarily with offcasts, rendering new pieces from the residue of the fashion industry’s ‘postconsumer waste’. This resistant participation sets up a framework for production on new terms, both by ToC herself and those drawn into her projects’ perspectives. Setting up a series of ambivalences, she samples the leftovers of a highly profitable industry and then draws them into another productive context. Remade into newly valuable display pieces for art galleries and private collections they are accompanied by a dedicated set of workshops, drawing participants closer in to both conceptual questions and processes of production and wastage.
While worn-out clothes have existed in every era, since the mid- twentieth century they have been purposefully generated through the strategy of ‘scheduled obsolescence’. Designing items to collapse irreparably, manufacturers use this model to secure a steady customer base for luxury products (a method deployed from clothes to cars to tech). Countless landfills and trash islands are filled with these ruined garments, blending freely with other domestic by-products.
ToC’s work has challenged this obsolescence, and on a small scale, undone it. This salvific process makes the nature of waste clear through a creative merging of discarded garments, claimed while passing through ‘secondary markets’ before reaching their final fate as trash. Trainer laces reappear as corsettage, familiar logos are dissolved or peek out through heavy reconditioning. But how does this recreative work serve as a critique?
Frustratingly for the industry’s critics, the fashion world has remained resistant to any number of exposés of its planetary impact and cruel working conditions. Loose opposition to ‘fast fashion’ has become noticeably recuperated — used as a basis for lavish spending on brands that reframe their exploitation as relatively ‘ethical’. Just as the fast food industry has happily accumulated alongside an explosion in gourmet dining and farmer’s markets, the rise of ‘ethical’ ateliers has done little to uproot simpler profit-making models that still dominate high streets, servicing millions of impoverished or oblivious customers.
In this context, ToC’s approach is all the more powerful for beginning with thrifting – sifting through clothing that is, as she put it to me: ‘expelled from the realm of newness and in the process of becoming waste, flowing through secondary market places’. In this era, trash is freely available and ever-more plentiful. Rather than an injunction to change, reduce, purify, this is work that delves into the mess, drawing the chaos of existing terms of production into view in ways that cannot be neatly classed either as celebration or condemnation.
ToC’s work succeeds for two reasons: firstly the sheer scale of dumped items is so vast that estimates are easily reduced to statistical noise. Demonstrating the damage done to ecosystems (and labourers) by fashion industry practices requires drawing our attention back to the micro. ToC’s reworking of familiar garments (trainers, handbags, coats) into new forms draws our gaze across that which is generated only to be cast aside. Secondly, any workable ecologism fit for the rest of the twenty-first century will have to take the form of a rescue mission— retrieving and reversing damage already done, rather than just scaling back the ongoing harm. ToC gives us a glimpse of the practices we’ll need to devise a million times over for the planet to survive.
For her part, ToC sees her practice as a merging of eras, expectations and intimacies. Since she works with garments that have already ‘served their time’, the question of whose trash it is remains unclear: the factory’s or the household’s? In an interview with 650mAh Gallery, Hove, she discussed a workshop where participants had refashioned donated garments. ToC remarked:
“The materials we use have been recently manufactured but the word ‘workshop’ also refers back to a time before the industrial revolution decentralised and deskilled the means and methods of textile and garment production. The ‘workshop’, often being located in the maker’s home, where all elements of fabrication, from raw-material to weaving and assembling, happened in the same space. In that sense the ‘workshop’ also implies an intimacy, connected to the domestic environment and family bond.”
This critical interest in diverging terms of production guides ToC’s practice, her work providing a response to the excess demanded by the conventions of the industry from which she draws materials, and appropriates visions. Gleaning inspiration primarily from her observation of high street trends, ToC targets moments of fashion exactly as they begin to ebb away, preserving and rearticulating what was otherwise set to fade. This third reversal works against the usual seasonal progressions of fashion production, pinning down passing trends through both advancing and circumventing the continual disintegration they require.
ToC’s works vary between dissolving the focus of fashion on garments altogether and pieces that could clearly serve as items to be worn. One example of the latter comes from the 2019 Eclogues series, a pair of cloth trousers that at first glance seems to provide a dose of simplicity, contrasting with the whirling hybrid chaos of its companions. This piece offsets ToC’s typical exemplary tangle of critique through a simple partition of black and white. Not drawn from post consumer waste—and strikingly tidier for it—this standalone piece evokes earlier eras of fashion history, when garments were more regularly stitched together from full blocks of colour. Three strands of string suggest a package, and seem to match the basic wire hanger as a cheap flourish. The mask-like pouch suspended across the groin reminds one of a codpiece, or the harlequin mask already strongly implied by the black- and-white split. Focusing on this groin-pouch makes it easy to imagine the wearer swaggering with it stuffed full of necessities (perhaps a wallet or smartphone) the cloth’s loose grip allowing for flamboyant sashays.
Two entries from 2021’s Puzzlecut Boot sequence (Black and Oxblood) – both displayed last year at the SOPHIE TAPPEINER gallery in Vienna – provide more elaborate and cluttered visions. Sourced from postconsumer waste, these pieces are less wearable than the harlequin suit (at least for unadventurous walkers). The sibling boots have stack heels (two for Puzzlecut Boot Oxblood, four for Puzzlecut Boot Black). In Puzzlecut Boot Black, a symmetrical scheme of black and grey heels provides some visual texturing, while in Puzzlecut Boot Oxblood the heels complete a thread of darker red that curves up diagonally from them through the piece’s tongue. This tenuous accretion of surfaces makes it hard to resist the image of feeling one’s bodyweight press down through this repetitive and insecure surface. Would we crash right through, or just be left tottering? Contrasting with the tidy composition of the Eclogues piece, these boots were clearly pulled from various junked garments, and seem on the verge of collapsing to pieces again. Both boots merge shoes and handbags, the handles in Puzzlecut Boot Oxblood curving around like a pull strap and shoelaces, while Puzzlecut Boot Black has one curling over its front toe like a probing appendage (and obvious tripping hazard). Especially striking is Puzzlecut Boot Oxblood’s use of stacked formalwear shoes to make its tongue, a stray handbag label jutting across their dark contour. Contrastingly, Puzzlecut Boot Black seems to have originated in a sleek trainer; now layered with excessive flourishes it takes a moment to parse. String (this time black) makes an appearance again, tenuously binding together the various heels of both boots, threaded through zippers and buckles. This crowding of newly appropriated ornaments and sartorial structures hints at the disintegrative nature of the disposal sites that this material would usually fill. With Puzzlecut Boot Black, handbag strap-grips and ornamentation also seem to have been repurposed as binding. One form dissolves into the next.
Each of these three pieces shows us that going to waste is not the last word in the life of any object. Retrieval and reconfiguration are always the latent fate of the surplus, and to be trashed is not the same thing as being truly destroyed. If there’s hope for the planet and its toiling workforces yet, Tenant of Culture shows us that it can be seen only through the existing carnage and clutter.
Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Aja Barber, Consumed: The need for collective change: colonialism, climate change and consumerism (Octopus Publishing Group, 2021)
Patricia E. Malcolmson, English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930 (University of Illinois Press, 1986)
Arwen Mohun, Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940 (The John Hopkins University Press, 2003)
Ashok Kumar, Monopsony Capitalism: Power and Production in the Twilight of the Sweatshop Age (Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve, Waste-site stories: The Recycling of Memory (State University of New York Press, 2002)
Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (IG PUBLISHING, 2011)
Ellen Rosen, Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (University of California Press, 2002)
Hanna Rose Shell, Shoddy: From Devils Dust to Renaissance Rags (University of Chicago Press, 2020)
Sofi Thanhauser, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing (Allen Lane, 2022)
Sam Vettese Forster and Robert M Christie, The Significance of the Introduction of Synthetic Dyes in the mid 19th Century on the Democratisation of Western Fashion (Journal of the International Colour Association, 2013)
‘For that we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things.’ Arjun Appadurai
Tenant of Culture is the artistic practice of Hendrickje Schimmel (b. 1990, Arnhem), who lives and works in London. She received her MA in Mixed Media from the Royal College of Art, London in 2016, and completed a BA in Womenswear at Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, Zwolle, Netherlands in 2012. The artist is currently included in the exhibition Post-digital Intimacy at the National Gallery Prague, Prague. Forthcoming solo and two-person exhibitions include: Ivory Tars, Glasgow (2022) with Gillian Lowndes and Soft Opening, London (2023). Recent solo exhibitions include Et Al. at Kunstverein Dresden, Dresden (2021); Autumn Cloth at Sophie Tappeiner, Vienna (2021); Georgics (how to style a chore coat) at Fons Welters, Amsterdam (2020); I forgot to tell you I’ve changed at Het Fries Museum, Leeuwarden (2020); Eclogues (an apology for actors) at Nicoletti Contemporary, London (2019); Works and Days at Outpost Gallery, Norwich (2018); Deadstock at Sarabande Foundation, London (2018); Climate | Change at Clearview, London (2017) and The Latest Thing at CODE ROOD Koningsweg, Arnhem (2016). Selected group exhibitions include: Eternally Yours at Somerset House, London (2022); Testament at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London (2022); Sartor Resartus, curated by Jeppe Ugelvig at Huset fur Kunst & Design, Copenhagen (2021); Getting Dressed at V.O Curations, London (2021); LOOK! Exposing Art and Fashion at Museum Marta Herford, Herford (2021); Ghosts and Bones at Galeria Stereo, Warsaw (2021); Combine at Fons Welters, Amsterdam (2021); Fittings with Kinke Kooi at Exile Gallery, Vienna (2020); Image Power at Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (2020); Transformers at Future Gallery, Berlin (2020); Wearables at Etage Projects, Copenhagen (2020); Gubbinal at Project Native Informant, London (2019); NEW RUINS at Soft Opening, London (2019); Artquest Peer Forum at Camden Art Centre, London (2018); Out of Fashion at Centraal Museum, Utrecht (2017); Bloomberg New Contemporaries at Institute of Contemporary Art, London (2016); Fetishism in Fashion at MoBA Biennial, Arnhem, (2013). The work of Tenant of Culture is in the col- lections of the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and The Pier Arts Centre, Orkney. In 2020 Soft Opening published the artist’s first mono- graph in collaboration with Charles Asprey which was one of the winners of the Swiss Most Beautiful Books Award.
Jules Gleeson is a writer and stand-up comedian from London, based in Vienna. She co-edited Transgender Marxism (2021), and is now working on a book about the philosophy of intersex liberation.
The Camden Art Centre Emerging Artist Prize at Frieze is generously supported by Georgina Townsley, Alexandra Economou and Noach Vander Beken, Nicola Blake, Simon and Carolyn Franks, Ronald and Sophie Sofer and Russell Tovey. With special thanks to Frieze, London and Soft Opening, London.