Buy, wear, throw away, repeat. Fast fashion might have democratized the access to trendy clothes, but it has also shifted the wearer’s relationship to their garments. In today’s culture of mass-production, what makes clothes valuable? What makes something worth conserving, and contrarily, when is something thrown away?
These questions are central to the work of Tenant of Culture. The RCA graduate and London-based artist is at the end of a year-long Sarabande scholarship, which she concluded with the “Deadstock” exhibition at the Hackney studio.
Cowboy boots out of upcycled moccasins and derbys, leather jackets that reveal a patchwork of vintage handbags, a sculpture made up out of t-shirts and jewelry,… Clothes are a medium of choice, but don’t call Tenant of Culture a fashion designer.
Her work is a game of contradictions ‒ sustainability and wasteful fashion, archive and trend, sculpture and clothing. The artist explores sustainability in fashion through unique pieces, giving them a new dimension of living, being used and seen through a previously undiscovered perspective.
On the morning of her opening weekend, we met up with the artist to discuss her plans for the future, the danger of trendy sustainability and her collaboration with Marko Bakovic.
What was the starting point of this exhibition?
This exhibition was an accumulation of different things I had been working on so far. Normally, I work specifically within one subject, but this time it is a combination of older and newer work. So, there is no specific narrative attached to the show.
In general, the subjects and themes of my shows revolve around the creation of waste and processes of inclusion and exclusion, especially when you look at the dynamic of something being in and other things being out of either usefulness or representation.
I was also looking at the narrative of the rag-picker as described by Walter Benjamin. I also used the idea of institutional archives, so if something is not useful anymore it can either become waste or be re-used, re-purposed. Generally, I talk a lot about the death scenarios of objects: when they either become the representation in themselves and the institutional archive being kept alive artificially or become waste and decay.
What is your creative process like? Do you have a vision and then work on realizing it in real life or do you develop your ideas as you go?
It is a combination of both. I usually start off with a clear idea of what I want to do but then the materiality always changes entirely. When I have a concept in my head, I then, for example, find this material or a piece of waste that transforms the whole idea because the materiality has its own unique nature. It is an improvisation that somehow eventually and always comes back to the initial idea, but in a different way that I haven’t even imagined.
How do you decide which items to work with/preserve and which you leave out?
I get that question quite a lot. It has to do with my own taste which is naturally an artist’s prerogative/personal preference to be attracted to certain objects more than others. I always lean towards more mundane garments and objects, like socks. It seems a bit more interesting to use the daily objects that everyone is quite familiar with and give them a new narrative, and make people look at things in a different way than they are used to.
What kind of technique did you use to fuse the pieces together, to preserve them? How long does the process usually take to create the jacket/boots?
I’m always broadening the spectrum of techniques because I have a textiles background where you’re taught different techniques. Every new work comes with a new technique. I watch a lot of YouTube videos on how to make things. I don’t like repeating processes and I enjoy teaching myself new processes and how to apply them.
You said that you find the difference between preserved and disposed items interesting, this clearly echoes in your work, could you elaborate on this?
I am interested in the processes of exclusion and inclusion, morality and cultural hierarchy that are integral to the creation of waste. When an object becomes part of an institutional archive it gains a representative function. In my work, I examine this idea by juxtaposing processes of preservation with processes of natural decay.
Your previous works explore the value of archiving, is that something you explored for this exhibition as well?
The act of archiving is a subject that is interesting to me in this time of extreme saturation. What do we decide to keep, what do we throw away? Archives and storage spaces are always of interest to me, in relation to fashion, which as an industry creates a lot of waste and as a phenomenon has the power to make thing psychologically obsolete.
What is your ideal audience and what do you want to tell them?
I don’t have an ideal audience, a lot of my work is about exclusion, so it would be great if my audience would be as broad as it possibly can be. With this show, the main idea is a post-apocalyptic scenario where nothing can be produced anymore. When you have to make ends meet in new, innovative ways, you are forced to look at objects from a different perspective. I guess that could be a message: look in a different way at the things you have, don’t just see your glasses as being there for drinking, look for other uses.
Sustainability is now a big trend and it is quite fashionable to wear sustainable clothes and accessories, what is your take on sustainability in fashion? Should we opt for recycled/reused/reworked pieces or does it feed back into capitalist agenda? What are your thoughts on this matter?
I often have the same dialogue in my head. My previous show I did in Clearview was actually about the way ideology is capitalized. Fashion is the ideal medium to capitalize on something like sustainability. It is extremely dangerous to turn sustainability into a trend, because when a trend is over and out of style, the opposite happens. Sustainability might be trendy now but what is the counter-trend? Is it extreme wasteful fashion? The reality is that people are going to get sick of the sustainable narrative at some point. I like fashion’s dynamic as a phenomenon but as an industry, it takes on trends so quickly and discards them at the same rate. For example, Vetements uses the recycling aesthetic but they don’t recycle. This is very harmful, because you see H&M selling “recycled” garments that aren’t actually recycled. Let’s take ripped jeans: they have been trendy for so long, but they are always the result of a very lengthy process of ripping wholesome jeans from scratch. It is a very interesting phenomenon. I have researched ripped and stained garments being appropriated by high classes, and I feel like the same is happening today. In the 19th century, when textile dye was invented, bright colours, which were previously only available for the wealthy, became accessible to the masses. This caused a shift where wealthy people didn’t want to wear bright colours anymore and started to intentionally create faded effects on their clothes. Eventually, in the late 1870s, fashion was all about faded browns and ambiguous blues. I believe this shows the human dynamic and you can’t even fight it. Democratization seems to go hand in hand with waste, which is very strange. Making a product more widely available also means that there has to be more of it and cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. There is social political contradiction within that. It is also something artists and young designers cannot really solve, it is more political than creative. Nevertheless, it is easy to say that everyone should buy sustainable clothes but if you are a single mother providing for three kids, Primark is the solution. It is a difficult discussion.
What are your plans for the future?
I cannot picture the future, I always have to improvise, somehow it worked out quite well. By not making a plan I stay very open to what comes my way. I really like to collaborate and take different routes into different projects. I am now talking with someone to produce the shoes we made, slightly simplified but still recycled. That is something that just popped up. However, I’m always working towards exhibitions and Tenant of Culture would never be a fashion brand. I understand that it is quite hard for people to place my work ‒ what do I do with it and do I wear it? I prefer to remain a bit ambiguous because as soon as you say “I’m a fashion brand that produces,” you are being swallowed by this turmoil of seasonal collections, and I just want to stay a bit slippery, so no one can catch me and put me in that process.
If you had to choose one piece to epitomize your exhibition as a whole, what would it be and why?
Right now, I love the shoes the most. Also, they are the most recent thing I have created. I am collaborating with Marko Bakovic to create a shoes series called Sublet, that is based on the idea of being a tenant and subletting culture and objects instead of owning them, being a point in the cyclical movement of the material. I am really excited that it could become something to order. If someone wants them we can make them more wearable. I am really excited that something that was meant to be a sculpture became a very wearable thing. I just love the look of them.
How has your time been at Sarabande so far?
Great! I am so sad I have to leave. It is really hard to sustain yourself when you are at the beginning of your practice and, especially in London, studio space is unaffordable. Sarabande offers the opportunity to network with loads of people, share tools and knowledge. It is perfect. The place is very nurturing and there is enough time to spend on what you want to do.
Words Karla Noor