Tenant of Culture at Nicoletti Contemporary / London

Tenant of Culture / Eclogues (An Apology for Actors)

30 September – 14 December

Nicoletti Contemporary
12A Vyner Street
E2 9DG, London

Text by Camille Houzé 

The work of Tenant of Tulture (the artistic practice of
Hendrickje Schimmel, 1990, NL) investigates the ethics
and politics inscribed in garments and fashion styles.
Departing from aesthetic trends that she locates in
aspirational lifestyle magazines, social media or on the
streets, tenant of culture analytically deconstructs
manufactured garments to examine the ways in which
conceptual and ideological frameworks materialise in
methods of production, circulation and marketing of
clothes. In her practice, the processes of deconstruction and reconfiguration of apparels into sculptural
assemblages operate as means to conjure up the
dialectical nature of fashion, whose primary function is
to avoid alienation from society through resemblance,
yet mobilising this function through what Georg Simmel identified in
Fashion (1905) as the paradoxical
logic of ‘standing out while fitting in’. At work within this
logic is a codification of visual languages which reflects
dynamics of power, domination and assertion of social
status via a constant re/de-valuation of goods.

Eclogues (an apology for actors) – Tenant of Culture’s
newly commissioned exhibition at Nicoletti Contemporary, London – examines the underlying power structures hiding behind the romanticisation of nature, rural
virtues and manual labour in current lifestyle aesthetic
trends. Comprised of a new series of sculptures incorporating recycled garments and accessories, the exhibition specifically analyses how values of authenticity,
integrity and rusticity are presently being branded as
status symbol and visionary politics within an ecologically-concerned era. the term
eclogues – which refers
to the antic literary genre of pastoral poetry otherwise
known as
Bucolics – is therefore used to designate a
tendency towards what the artist calls a ‘regression
aesthetics’, conspicuous in the popularity of organic
looking garments and recent return of rustic materials, bonnet caps, reed baskets and aprons in lifestyle
magazines and high-street vitrines. Under the varnish
of this apparently innocent aesthetic, however, lurks a
‘pastoral nostalgia’ which cyclically re-emerges across
history in moments of crisis. R
eflecting the inherent
tension between ideas of progress and environmental
concerns, this pastoral nostalgia often takes the form
of alter-progressist ideologies based on the mystification of a past that never was; one inspired by medieval, pre-capitalist times in which skilled artisans and 
cheerful peasants were peacefully living amid fertile fields and untouched nature. If, the exhibition asks,
such pastoral desires could a priori be seen as stemming from the progressive development of an ecological consciousness, what are the active socio-political
forces rooted in rural aspirations and hypothetical
‘return to nature’?

Tenant of Culture is addressing this question by
focusing her attention on the allegorical figure of the
‘milkmaid’, which recently re-emerged in fast fashion
chain stores such as Boohoo and Topshop selling £5 versions of the ‘milkmaid’ top; a virgin white, frilly,
off-shoulder cotton garment which, as the artist observes, ‘conspicuously employs this visual identifier to
communicate female innocence, fertility and (re)productivity’. Indeed, the milkmaid is an historically loaded figure, which has been used to convey values of rural
labour and female virtuousness, operating in art and
literature as the epitome of the fecund, nurturing body. Through a series of enamelled busts that she dresses
with headpieces referencing the classic milkmaid bonnet cap, Tenant of Culture analyses the socio-political
function that the milkmaid has fulfilled across history
and questions the significance of its reappearance in
the current context.

Adorned with deconstructed wigs and hairpieces
made by the hair and wig artist Fraziska Presche, the
busts form a group of characters which enact the
fashionable milkmaid within a stripped-down theatrical
display inspired by the retail environment. In relation to
the milkmaid allegory, this method of display operates
as a contemporary translation of the early modern
‘pleasure dairy’ – the marble-carved pastoral architecture in which aristocratic women played the milkmaid
character (the most famous example being Marie-Antoinette’s
Hameau de la Reine in Versailles). Already
indicative, during the eighteenth century, of an utterly
idealised vision of rural labour by the urban elite, the
milkmaid narrative is here performed within the clinical and sterilised environment of the retail store (and
the art gallery) to pinpoint the appropriation of manual
labour and workwear aesthetic by the fashion industry.
the range of materials used in the textile assemblages
– typical ‘city’ garments including white t-shirts, suits
and industrial fabric in which the artist 
sometimes inlaid organic components such as flowers
and straws – also suggests this tension between urban
and rural life, as well as the unbalanced relationship
between humans and their environment. Here, however, the intricate construction of the garments, in which
assemblages of synthetic materials fake a ‘natural’
appearance while organic materials are used to create abstract ornamental patterns, problematises the
habitual opposition between the naturally given and
the industrially produced at work within pastoral ideals.
tenant of culture’s milkmaids, on the contrary, point to
the limitation of an ecological thinking that would obliterate the economic, social and territorial problematic
embedded in the ecological question; by being presented as both symptoms and actors of the unequal
relations of production, class and territories embedded in pastoral narratives, they expose the hypocritical
dimension of discourses calling for a ‘return to nature’
– often articulated by the classes detaining the means
of production. 

Indeed, in Eclogues (an apology for actors), the endorsement of rural virtues and ancestral labour, of
which the milkmaid phenomenon is but one example,
is less seen as the sign of a sentimental connection
to nature than as participating in the normalisation of conservative discourses based on the return to
traditions. In this sense, tenant of culture does not
only use the theatrical display of the milkmaids as a
demonstration of the heteronormative structures inducing women to perform stereotypes; the milkmaid
attire acts as a symptom of the active dissemination
and passive acceptation of the neo-reactionary
ideas masked beneath pastoral desires. Stripped-down of any identifiable facial feature, the characters
playing in tenant of culture’s eclogue are brought
back to their condition of typified bodies as busts or
mannequins; no longer the conscious individuals acting out in a pastoral play or poem, they are presented
as the anonymous actors playing the ever-renewed
script of consumerist trends.

Text by Camille Houzé