Jochem Hendricks

Conversation, 1999/2000
Eva Linhart and Jochem Hendricks

between Eva Linhart (EL) and Jochem Hendricks (JH) on December 31, 1999 on the occasion of the exhibition »3.281.579 Grains of Sand« at Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt. Eva Linhart is an art historian and curator at the museum.

EL: Hallo Jochem!
JH: Hallo Eva!
EL: Jochem, how long did it take you and your assistants to count out the right number of grains of sand, namely 3 million, 281 thousand, 579 grains?
JH: It took almost 1.000 hours.
EL: Wow! – And how many assistants were involved?
JH: There were 12 assistants, and I was in charge.
EL: Did you all count the same amount?
JH: No, I counted considerably more than the others.
EL: Did you expect it to take as long as it did?
JH: Well, I thought it would take a really long time, but I was surprised it took that long.
EL: Indeed, that sounds like ages! Presumably not something you simply do in a day.
JH: Certainly not! The counting took longer than a month. We did not count every day, or for the same length of time every day, but the whole thing was spread over a month.
EL: And you all kept going till the very end?
JH: We all kept going – and I hope that nobody miscounted!
EL: (laughs) Let’s not even countenance such a possibility! Tell me, did it surprise you that so many grains of sand make up such a small heap of sand?
JH: I was surprised, but more about the size of the heap of sand. I had actually expected a small heap that would fit on the palm of my hand.
EL: Really. When I heard what you were doing I expected a much larger pile! But why 3.281.579 of all numbers?
JH: I wanted a number that leaves much to the imagination. And going by the response to date – word got around before we started the counting – a lot of people have wondered about it!
EL: I have to confess that I gave it no further thought because it is such an enormous number that I just can’t imagine what it is like. It is like the ›sea‹; I don’t think about amounts or anything specifically saline, just that it all adds up to some immense seething mass.
JH: What I mean by saying that it leaves much to the imagination and that many people came up with all sorts of associations in fact has nothing to do with the size of the number but with its significance. People searched for a specific significance behind the number, assuming either that I concealed a mystery in it, or that it is a prime number, or that it contains something else that is somehow mystical or mysterious, if not indeed an explanation for the turn of the century…
EL: Ahaaa!
JH: … of the millennium!
EL: And how could that be hidden in it?
JH: For instance, it might be the sum of the digits …
EL: Ahaaa!
JH: …or finding magical number games…
EL: Ahaaa!
JH: …like those mentioned long ago by Nostradamus!
EL: Ohhh! – Well, obviously my passion for numbers is not well enough developed to follow you here.
JH: To be honest, I would tend to agree with you!
EL: (laughs) Did anybody manage to impart an image or significance into this number, and is that intended at all?
JH: Nobody has done so up to now. But that had more to do with people’s laziness because they simply asked me, and expected me to provide an answer. Evidently people were too lazy to think about it.
EL: And is there no computer program that would relieve us of this onerous task?
JH: As far as I know, it is running at this very moment!
EL: But it was not commissioned by you?
JH: No, no, no! After all, it goes against the grain of my work. People are trying to decipher me.
EL: Jochem, tell me something, when you have counted that long it must become a really tiresome thing counting, separating these minute particles. Did you use tweezers?
JH: No the tool everyone used was a simple, black strip of card. We worked on black because it allows you to see the sand grains better. What was interesting is that as time went on everyone developed the same technique. Everybody started counting individual sand grains and eventually we all found out you can manage up to about five at once, you can even “rake” them in. And you save a lot of time this way without making a mistake!
EL: You improved with time then?
JH: We did indeed, and then after hours and hours our performance tailed off again because we were so incredibly tired.
EL: Do you also understand your installation as a (modern) exploration of the topic of art craftsmanship? Was it important to you that the counting was done by hand?
JH: It is not a statement against machines or anything like that, but manual work is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the work. If it had been possible to have the sand counted by a machine, there would have been no point in any of this. I simply pour the sand into the machine, and three minutes later the grains have been counted, and the sand packed it into a bag. But that is not my intention. The objective is the upgrading of the sand grains through the act of counting, in other words the upgrading of manual work.
EL: Does the current topic of digitalization also play a role in your exhibition in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst? Is counting by hand a relevant topic for you because space and time factors no longer restrict communication? After all, I can communicate with someone who is thousands of kilometers away, and feel as if I am physically present without actually being there.
JH: Well that was part of the initial idea. If this state you have just described were not a fact, the work would not have such an impact. After all, it is the very fact that in an age like ours, and under such conditions you carry out such an absurdly, complicated piece of work by hand, namely counting millions of grains, that gives the work its cutting edge.
EL: Is it then time spent sensibly because it is used for something as resolute as art or is it merely leisure time, because it is used for something like ›luxury‹-art?
JH: (laughs) Luxury-art is certainly a term guaranteed to annoy me!
EL: I’m glad to hear that!
JH: Naturally, it is time well spent. You have to consider that my 12 assistants received money for something for which other people pay a lot of money. Anyone, for instance, who attends meditation courses, and attempts to achieve a sense of nothingness has to dig deep into their pockets for the privilege. I give them money for it!
EL: That is one way of looking at it! In other words, you measure the sense or nonsense of an activity by its financial effect.
JH: The money enhances the purpose, but it does not, of course, produce it.
EL: Is that the Calvinist in you talking or the artist?
JH: Both I imagine!
EL: Was the counting an enjoyable activity?
JH: It was at the beginning, but not as time went on.
EL: Did you see it more as a leisure activity, or just as a means of earning money, a job?
JH: At the outset everyone found it fun to do. You start doing something that is totally stupid – counting grains of sand. Naturally, I tried to explain to the assistants why they were doing it, but when you have counted grains of sand for an hour you forget all the explanations. Then, it just becomes a job, and as time passed it turned into something of a marathon. After ten kilometers, the body starts to tire and that has to be overcome through endurance and discipline, then by way of reward at the 30 kilometer mark certain endomorphines are produced, the feeling of fun returns, you fall into a trance, and the whole thing is highly enjoyable again. But of course it is accompanied by incredible tiredness!
EL: Do you define your work by the result or in terms of the process of creation involved?
JH: It is not contemplative work. The objective is not the effort expended! You could say the meditative part of the work is a by-product. Without the manner in which it was created, this pile would be nothing, and without the pile, its creation would have no meaning. What I seek to do is to imbue this miserable heap of sand with meaning. (Not only through the money involved – the sweetener that makes it more palatable), but through this crazy work of counting every single grain of sand – you could say we took every grain of sand seriously!
EL: (laughs) This heap of sand has suddenly taken on a whole new appearance for me.
JH: I would certainly hope so! Something I have grappled with for quite some time is the problem of idea and realization, material and design. For some time now I’ve been trying to alter material or things and imbue them with meaning without any kind of artistic intervention, in other words to produce works of art solely through the addition of ideas and semantic changes. In our case, the material is a lowly heap of sand. I could not quickly come up with something that is more banal than a heap of sand. But thanks to the story involved it becomes highly valuable – and I am not talking about my assistants’ hourly wages! The heap of sand changes completely through the activity for which it is employed. Since the grains of sand were individually counted, this alters the pile of sand. It is infused with meaning, and the observer also experiences this. Of that I am quite convinced! As far as I’m concerned there is nothing more interesting, nothing more spectacular, more exciting in art than being able to say that a work is charged with meaning: it radiates something, sets things in motion.
EL: How important in all this is the question of belief and disbelief? Did anyone check whether you miscounted or not?
JH: Of course belief and doubt play an important role. But they tend to come to bear at an earlier point in time. There are even people who doubt the sand was counted at all! Those who do not believe the number, and those who think the number is wrong do not come until later. What I like is that all of us – even those of us involved in the actual counting – are amongst these doubters, and that this cannot be any different. Nobody can ever say with certainty or prove they did not miscount. No matter how many independent counts were made of a heap of sand, people would always contest the result. What is more, I am sure we would get as many different results as there are persons counting. There is no machine that can count grains of sand, because the grains are different sizes. And only a machine would satisfy our need for objective truth – only for new doubts to arise on other issues.
EL: I can’t check it either. Any my inability sets in at an earlier stage.
JH: Quite apart from the reluctance anyone is bound to feel when faced with the prospect of crunching the numbers – everyone has the opportunity to check! Anyone that wants to can do a recount. But then keep going please! There are big fines for those that give up half way through!
EL: This borderline question, this tightrope walk between belief and disbelief characterizes much of your work. This notion – let’s call it a phenomenon, or approach – is a recurrent theme in your work. You have to believe it, you can choose to believe it; is it implausible, is it true? – you never know! And you never reveal the answer. What fascinates you about this juncture?
JH: I always say my work is about reality rather than appearance. Naturally, this emphasizes my credibility.
EL: And also your belief!
JH: And also my belief. Everyone, or at least everyone who buys my work has the chance to check it whatever it is.
EL: If you transfer this approach onto traditional panel painting, you have exactly the same problems, namely between the illusion and authenticity of the painted pictorial product. And then this conflict between reality, illusion and seduction etc. In other words, everything traditionally associated with it – art as a seducer of the sins…
JH: It is the old conflict about the nature of representation and that was originally a theological argument. Is what I see truth? Or is what I see fiction? Is it a claim by the artist, or is the artist communicating absolute reality? I am interested in whether you can believe works or not.
EL: Now I have the feeling again that this is your belief speaking!
JH: (laughs) Yes, perhaps my belief is so weak that I always have to make sure of things.
EL: As a Catholic, I have much less trouble with illusion; I want to believe, I enjoy looking, and I am not filled with doubts when I encounter a pleasing image.
JH: I am a real doubter! Evidently, that is part of my character, and also the torment of my life. But it is part of me, and I have to deal with it somehow – after all, I want to go on living!
EL: (laughs) That is great, and we are pleased to hear it! So, trust and exact numbers! An exact number, calculability, checking what is in effect an absurd number: that points to an interest in a certain form of cognition. How would you describe it, what cognition are you interested in, what debate?
JH: I am concerned with questioning the expression truth, above all scientific truth in the sense of exactness, precision, measurability and verifiability, in the sense of objective truth. In the case of the heap of counted grains of sand, exactness, precision are the accepted yardsticks, measurability was consistently applied to the point of becoming ridiculous, and what happens? Ultimately, the verifiability of this small experiment collapses at the end of the chain.
EL: To return to another point, namely knowledge and control. Why on the one hand this exactness, this game with the mythical, the fantastic, instilling things with meaning on the one hand and juxtaposing this to the maximum degree of verifiability? The two are intrinsically opposites.
JH: What I exploit here is our need for objective control, in other words our belief in science. And exactness is clearly connected with our belief in a science that demands objective findings. I use this mythical connotation, as you call it, to imbue things with meaning. It is a method, a means to an end. The number I chose suggests precision, and precision stands for truth.
EL: And verifiability!
JH: Verifiability stands for truth. We learned that from science, or rather our scientific view of the world taught us to accept this! In the meantime, this idea has been quashed.
EL: Yes, in the meantime something is true until such time as it is replaced by something more up-to-date. You know, we Europeans tend to treat time the same way. We speak about time as if it really were something outside ourselves that we have at our disposal. We have a different concept of time than that used, say, in Asian culture. Time is something we talk about as if it were a property we possessed, and yet generally speaking we do not possess it! In other words, we are not part of the temporal process, but we can control it. You adopted this topic and the entire process through your installation, because you have transposed time onto something material. What motivated you?
JH: As you rightly say time is something we Central Europeans do not have. As such, it was naturally a challenge to counter this phenomenon. Antithetical action and exaggeration are effective strategies of illumination. And the absurdity of counting grains of sand relies on this very strategy. It goes without saying that there is something terribly stupid about counting grains of sand. It is an extreme kind of seemingly uselessly used, senselessly wasted time – but useful as a method.
EL: You are effectively posing a question about the meaning of activity. And yet this question on the meaning of things is measured in terms of functionality. Does time serve some purpose or is it a time that has no direct purpose yet is nevertheless spent? And does time have a purpose when it is intensively spent? Would that be a possible interpretation?
JH: I think my assistants experienced quite a lot at the time. I did at any rate!
EL: Fine, then let us raise our glasses to the new millennium!