Soft Acid is London-based, Dutch artist Hendrickje Schimmels’ first solo exhibition in the UK. Taken from French historian Michel de Certeau, Tenant of Culture is a moniker that speaks to Schimmel’s vision of the artist as merely a temp worker among capitalism’s structures of ownership, one who has to work within the world’s hierarchies. After being awarded Camden Art Centre’s Emerging Art Prize in 2020, this latest exhibition of her work continues her exploration of fashion’s active devastation of people and planet.
On Soft Acid
In Soft Acid at Camden Arts’ Centre, seams, zippers, and stitching abound. Having garnered reams of treated plastics, acid-washed cottons and leathers, and chemically enhanced nylons, Tenant of Culture takes the discarded fabrics of the fashion industry and turns them into monstrous sculptures. As if standing above a scrap heap in which all of the abandoned metal has been welded together, these sculptures are mass graves of use.
"Tenant of Culture takes the discarded fabrics of the fashion industry and turns them into monstrous sculptures"
Here, three excessively large fabrics are strung up from high up on the ceiling, hanging bold in their capacity to make the familiar strange again. In taking the waste of global capitalism’s constant manufacture of the new, Schimmel’s sculptures turn wearable objects into nightmarish tapestries, expanding the viewer’s sense of the global scale of the manufacturing of garments by stitching multiple commodities together.
These sculptures are monuments to the brutal reality of production, drawing the viewer’s attention to the processes of chemical burns and washes inferred in the exhibition’s title, as well as the countless, nameless workers who made them. But they stand also as bizarrely beautiful objects, recrafted through Schimmel’s thousands of hours of work. Previously a fashion student, one can easily imagine the arduity with which the artist unstitched and restitched the discarded – these are monuments to the patience and conviction of loving objects through crafting them.
In interviews, Schimmel is keen to explain how Soft Acid explores the waste involved in manufacturing. Particularly, how only 5% of the materials used are visible in the final product when it hits the market. The other 95% form what she terms a ‘pre-waste,’ such as bleaches, dyes, and waters used in the washing and preparation of materials.
Ringing out, drying, pressing, hanging’ – that’s how Schimmel describes the intensive processes that go into the washing of fabrics before they get turned into clothes. In a series of pieces by the artist, from which there are two in the exhibition, ‘Dry Fit’, the artist stitches dozens of repurposed bits of technical wear together. The togs, ties, and fastenings of the anoraks are taut with the tension of the material world – but they take on uniquely human dimensions, the title invoking the state of a person vomiting.
In observing the tension in the pull-fastenings in these expanded, mutant tapestries, I thought of the long descriptions of muscular activity in Karl Marx’s Capital, what happens when the production of commodities sucks the life out of the working body, seeing Schimmel’s sculptures as the machinic absorption of this human moving, the pulsing, wriggling organs of pressurised life. By following the lines of labouring in the original garment, the work traces these processes. This imaginative labouring reanimates what Marx called the dead labour of the manufacturing process, all of the wasted energy transformed into spectacular profits that hangs above our heads, much like some of these sculptures do.
"The togs, ties, and fastenings of the anoraks are taut with the tension of the material world"
We all live among and have purchase on the obscure reality of global supply chains. Schimmel’s art objects enhance the catastrophic tension in these chains. By stitching together the grotesque from abandoned objects, these objects reveal our complicated desire for the new, for self-improvement, and the horrendous consequences of our purchases and our labours without reducing this to moral condemnation.
This work is refreshingly undidactic in its revelation of the material world and its constant refabrication, and the harm that that places on human bodies and the ecological stability of the world. Perhaps this work provides us with a way to reimagine the impact of our very real nightmares.
The branding on which contemporary marketing depends is about marking ownership. In its more historical meaning, it suggests that something has been eviscerated, burned or obscured, skin or otherwise.
At the very end of the last century, Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) ripped off the marks of iconic brands, looking behind the Nike tick and peering into the wounds. She revealed the hyper-exploitative labour relations in the global south. The title of the book even summarises a specific radical scepticism around branding that defined the first decade of the next century. I remember how in 2005, it was definitely not on to wear a pair of Air Force Ones if you hung out with anticapitalists.
That idea has now become passé for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. But exploitation is still the hidden element behind all of our wavy garms. In 2017, a WHO report discovered that in the Bangladeshi regions of Hazaribagh and Kamrangirchar, where black leather is manufactured for European markets, 90% of the working population die before 50 due to the hazardous chemicals that engulf these areas.
"While brands have re-engineered their image, the wounds remain"
Nowadays, we have become used to green capitalism, its promises of sustainability and its marketing images of racially diverse utopia. To protect their reputation, many brands even outsource production to hide the exploitative conditions that make their clothes. While brands have re-engineered their image, the wounds remain.
By breaking down the significations of branding, the commodities of a cultured marketplace become something else. There is a utopian thread in Schimmel’s work built from her own laboured acts of recombination. This is particularly clear in the peculiar temporal status of these sculptures: objects presented as past, now stand as if they emerged within an obscured future, one with a completely different concept of utility.
In Soft Acid discarded garments have been recovered, repurposed, and disentangled from an exploitative and unstable concept of use; equally, for all of the ways that Schimmel has attempted to reimagine these objects, there is a pessimism in this work. The future from which we come to view Soft Acid might be one where these sculptures are little more than monuments to a world that has already been abandoned. Is the viewer buried in the scrap heap of culture or observing the workshop of utopian desire? You decide.
By Ed Luker
Cover image: Detail from Tenant of Culture, Cutting Stock (series), 2021