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Tenant of Culture: Ladder

  • Posted:
  • Friday dispatch
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  • Read Time: 5 minutes
Mark Blower Tenant of Culture

Courtesy of the artist and Soft Opening, London Photography Mark Blower

Soft Opening, 6 Minerva Street, London
8 September – 21 October 2023

Tenant of Culture is the name under which the London-based Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmel works. She has been featured in numerous group shows in Europe and in the UK, including Beautiful Repair at Copenhagen Contemporary earlier this year,  Eternally Yours at Somerset House and Testament at Goldsmiths CCA, both last year. Her well-received solo exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in 2022 will be shown again this autumn as a part of what is shaping up to be a very exciting edition of the British Textile Biennial being held in various venues around Blackburn, Lancashire from 28th September.  But here in London this month it is possible to see a new body of work, all completed this year, that delves deeper into the semiotics and history of textiles and clothing that are her abiding concern.

Around the walls of the gallery are works from her Haul series.  The experience of taking delivery of clothing that arrives in a little polythene pillow through the letterbox is a world away from the sensory delights of high-end retail:  there is no seductive crinkle of tissue paper, no pleasing creak of heavy-gauge, glossy carrier bag.  The garment that arrives in the post speaks of the industrialization at every level of the clothing industry – from the machine production outsourced to the lowest-wage economies, to online marketing and fully computerized distribution mechanisms that rely on algorithms more than they need a human being.  The conceit of Schimmel’s group of works here is to slice through packaging and garments, deploying a “stitch and slash” technique that references the fashions that were all the rage with the European aristocracy in the 16th century. The exquisitely hand-made costume of the Elizabethans, with slits designed to show off successive layers of costly textiles from imported brocades and wool to fine silks.  In the Haul series – the title is the term used on social media for the showing off of shopping sprees – the materials are scalpel-sliced into geometric patterns, and laced together with delicate white ribbons.  Logos are defaced and rendered illegible, yet these former ‘objects of desire’ retain their preening demeanour. 

The Drawn series takes found canvas tote bags, and applies the laborious decorative technique of ‘drawn thread-work’ to them.  Opened at the seams so that the handles are top and bottom, the artist has worked the cheap fabric into wonderfully delicate, diaphanous wall hangings, overlaid with spidery, loose stitching and giving dignity to the abject and ubiquitous original. 

In the centre of the gallery are two large-scale sculptures, Sabotage in Acrylic (Taupe) and Sabotage in Acrylic (Mint).  Tightly stretched, knitted acrylic with ribbed hems spans between the pillars of the space.  Each piece is ‘laddered’, for decorative effect. The exhibition is accompanied by a fascinating essay by fashion writer Eilidh Duffy that explores the history of ‘distressed’ or damaged textiles and clothing.  It is a rich and fascinating history that has seemingly updated itself across the ages, morphing according to circumstance.  Duffy explains that the 16th century version of conspicuous consumption that found expression in ostentatiously slashed sleeves had its origins in the habits of Swiss mercenary soldiers, the Landsknecht, who in turn were aping the surviving soldiers from a battle in 1477, whose own clothing was so destroyed by the combat that they stole whatever they could from the bodies of the dead, slashing into garments that were too small in order to make them fit. 

In 2022, Duffy explains, a fashion trend called ‘Avant-Apocalypse’ was a phenomenon on TikTok.  It was first identified in the autumn of 2021 by TikTok fashion analyst Mandy Lee, and defined as a style that is characterized by ‘neutral maximalism, lots of deconstructed pieces and asymmetry, wearing clothes the wrong way, knits in neutral tones”.  In the wake of the pandemic, economic crisis and now fully present climate crisis, psychologists are talking about a heightened degree of distress in the general population and a certain nihilism in some sections of society.  It comes as no surprise then, that this emotional and psychic ‘weather’ should be expressed in the way people dress.  We are literally wearing our anxious hearts on our deconstructed sleeves. 

The history of industrialisation is a story of recurring and deliberate damaging of textiles and weaving machines in the face of cold commerce.  Beginning in the 1700s and running through to the middle of the 19th century, there was organized resistance to the mechanization of weaving that deprived craftsmen and women of their livelihoods:  the 19th century Luddites who deliberately sabotaged their looms were preceded by the Spitalfields silk weavers of the 18th century who destroyed cloth and broke machines in protest against wage fluctuations and exploitative employment practice.  From the 1600s the trade in silk and calico imported from the ‘colonies’ further undermined the indigenous craftsmen and women.

Another trans-national dimension of the story is the environmental damage caused by waste produced by the fast fashion industry.  This is increasingly visible through the work of artists coming from Ghana and other African countries where tonnes of unwanted clothes sent to recycling in Europe end up dumped and leaking toxic chemicals into the landscape.  For a hugely entertaining disquisition on the history of bootcut jeans, via 1990s Dublin and the relationship of blue denim to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, try the recent Blindboy podcast:

Tenant of Culture’s exhibition at Soft Opening deftly platforms all of these interconnected issues and histories, offering a compelling take on the aesthetics of destruction as it connects with the human need for display of status and expression of self.

Caroline Douglas

Soft Opening
6 Minerva Street, London, E2 9EH
Opening Times: Wednesday – Saturday, 12 – 6pm
Exhibition open until 21 October 2023