Jochem Hendricks—Conceptual art, alchemy, and accounting: Three cases, plus one, 2001
John S. Weber
Text for the catalogue “Legal Crimes”, Kunstverein Freiburg, 2002 / John S. Weber was a curator at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 2004
Case One: Shortly before the end of the year 2000, Jochem Hendricks had his annual income tax calculated. With the amount of money he still owed the government, Hendricks purchased gold to create an artwork. Consisting solely of unaltered bars of bullion, the piece converted his debt to the state into a precise quantity of “working materials” that could be written off as a part of the artist’s business expenses. In this way, he effectively leveled his legally accountable income to a point that canceled his tax debt. The resulting artwork, titled Tax, remained in his possession.
Like much of Hendricks’s work of the past few years, Tax is an outwardly simple piece that masks a complex set of maneuvers. On the surface, the artist has merely manipulated a basic economic transaction between the individual and the state to reduce his taxes, engineering in the process a kind of readymade artwork. Since Duchamp, art can take virtually any form, so why not “tax shelter art” as well? So described, Tax appears as a clever blend of careful accountancy and postconceptual art. Yet closer scrutiny reveals a set of issues that are thornier and decidedly more fascinating.
First and foremost, Tax forces the question of whether the entire alchemical operation — transmuting debt into gold — is in fact a legal one. If so, does it have larger economic implications, and why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? In a peculiar sleight of hand, Hendricks has titled the piece Tax, yet the money owed to the government in fact ceases to function as tax the moment he uses it to purchase gold. Tax debt is then magically transformed into a business expense that the artist can write off as a tax loss. If the piece is sold, Hendricks’s profit can simply be recycled into a new set of gold “art bars,” seemingly providing a permanent, revolving tax shelter. In this light, Tax Evasion might be a more accurate title.
How long such a scheme will survive government oversight is one of the real and curious issues raised by Tax. For if the state indeed accepts the work as art, then presumably Hendricks’s tax shelter system can go on forever. To break this cycle, the German tax authorities would apparently have to disqualify the work as art, thereby taking a stand in an aesthetic and philosophical arena that modern democratic governments have tended to avoid, except when protecting their citizens from subject matter deemed sexually or religiously dubious. The fact that the offending art object is created out of gold, a noble material long associated with artworks and fine handcrafts, would seem to further complicate the matter.
Viewed as an art object outside the context of its economic and governmental entanglements, Tax seems at first glance to fall squarely within the post-Duchamp domain of conceptual art based on the use of found objects. Yet, unlike Duchamp’s Fountain or other readymades, Tax is made of an inherently valuable and beautiful substance. And whereas Duchamp “invented a new idea” for an off-the-shelf urinal to transform it into art, Hendricks both is and isn’t investing new value in the gold bars of Tax. For it is crucial that the gold still performs its original function as a carrier of monetary economic worth, quite independent of whatever additional “art value” Hendricks may have invested in it.
What results from this equation is an intricate conundrum that equally mixes and confuses issues of tax law, economics, notions of exchange value in relation to art and its market, and questions of aesthetic theory. Tax resolves none of the problems it raises, but states them in a manner that is both beguiling and edgy. It walks a delicate, dangerous borderline between conceptually sophisticated art agendas and the lurking possibility that this is, in the end, merely a brilliant scam devised by an artist with a wickedly original sense of humor and a fearless tax lawyer.
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Case Two: For an exhibition at the Frankfurt Museum für Angewandte Kunst (the Museum
of Applied Arts) in 1999-2000, Hendricks and a group of assistants spent several weeks counting a predetermined number of grains of sand. The 3,281,579 grains of sand were then exhibited in a vitrine, forming a small heap on a simple glass plate.
In 3.281.579 Grains of Sand Hendricks offers a way of understanding a small pile of sand that is initially surprising and may well be “true,” but has little utility regardless of its accuracy. How, after all, are we to know if there are in fact three million, two hundred eighty-one thousand, five hundred seventy-nine grains of sand here? Probably, almost inevitably, there are not. Does it matter if a few grains are missing? Would the piece be just as successful if there were actually only three million, two hundred eighty-one thousand, five hundred seventy-eight grains? And what is at stake if it doesn’t matter how many grains are truly present on the plate? Is the work about trust, degrees of informational accuracy, the obsessive behavior of counting a meaninglessly large number of tiny particles of matter, or is it essentially a theater piece in which the small pile of sand “performs” the indicated number, but isn’t necessarily even close to it once the curtain comes down?
The answer is all of the above, and more. Like Tax, 3,281,579 Grains of Sand is a burlesque, but a serious one. For a culture obsessed with information — however useless — and with statistics and their accuracy, it provides a concrete way to think about large and often unwieldy numbers, and about when and in what way they provide meaning. At the same time, 3,281,579 Grains of Sand is about the human labor involved in counting such a large quantity of such a tiny substance. It begs the question as to whether this labor — however well it has been executed — has any real meaning at all, or whether it was as futile as shoveling sand on the beach.
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Case Three: In 1997 and 1998, Hendricks took the furnishings of a small room containing everything one might need to maintain an Existenzminimum — a minimum level of existence. These items included a simple mattress with bedding, a lamp, a wardrobe, a bookshelf with books, an ashtray, a coffee machine, cups, and more. They were chopped, shredded, and ground to bits, then placed in a large, transparent plastic bag and titled Room in a Sack.
As with 3.281.579 Grains of Sand, viewers of Room in a Sack have no way to determine the factual accuracy of the piece’s central claim. Whether there is really a shredded mattress here, for example, is something that must be taken on trust. Superficially, the structure of meaning proposed by Room in a Sack seems to parallel the question of how many grains of sand are on the plate: both pieces offer an obsessive and peculiar form of accounting, and both provide no way to double-check their accountancy. There is a theatrical quality to both works, in that each is overtly concerned with acts of presentation and display. In one we are shown a small pile of sand and instructed to regard it as 3,281,579 distinct units; in the other we are shown a large sack of shredded material and told it represents the contents of a room. Finally, both works exhibit the artist’s dry, pleasingly analytical sense of humor at play.
Despite these intriguing similarities, at a deeper level these two pieces operate in a rather different psychological register. They each explore what it means to know or perceive something, yet in the case of Room in a Sack there is a poignant, existential, human dimension that is largely absent from the deliberately neurotic assertion of accuracy offered by 3,281,579 Grains of Sand. It is telling that the overt subject matter of Room in a Sack is the contents of a room that could serve as an “existence minimum” human dwelling. Shredded, compacted to its most space-efficient dimensions, there isn’t much here. Viewing the sack, one is left with a stark realization that the material circumstances of a life might add up to no more than this, a plastic bag of debris. There is something shocking and spooky about this Cuisinart carpentry, with its overtones of dispossession and homelessness. We can take it as an assertion that little in life is truly essential, or as a sign that material goods are in the end only so much vanity, obsession, and future garbage. Either way, Room in a Sack functions semiotically as a kind of memento mori — a reminder of the ephemerality and transience of human life at its most basic material level.
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Pieces such as Tax, Room in a Sack, and 3,281,579 Grains of Sand constitute one side of a conceptual investigation that is complemented by Hendricks’s extensive series of “eye drawings.” In these works, Hendricks employs an “eye tracker” to record the movements of his eyes, which are converted by computer to graphic data and printed. The act of seeing is thereby carefully charted, but radically dissociated from both the subject seen and the attendant processes of cognition that Hendricks deliberately invokes in his other work. This split between the act of seeing, the subject seen, and the thoughts engendered appears most dramatically in a work such as Eye. For this piece, Hendricks employed a retinal tracker to record minute movements of his eyes as he read an entire section of an American newspaper (specifically, the weekend entertainment calendar of The San Jose Mercury News, coincidentally titled “Eye”). The resulting fifty-two-page eye drawing is a maniacally complex, dense series of lines on newsprint, printed on the paper’s own printing press. As Hendricks notes, Eye is a newspaper materially identical to the original, printed on the same paper with the same ink, and recording the same information, except that it has “already been read.” The eye tracker, linked to a computer plotter, converts text and image into graphic residue of physiological and cognitive processes. Once again, vision intersects thought and language, but what Eye most dramatically invokes is the invisibility and non-presence of cognitions. What were these texts, what ideas did they record, and what happened in the mind of the reader? Despite the profusion of visual “information” offered by Eye, its most significant quality is a deliriously elaborate silence and refusal to speak.
In different ways, each of these pieces reveals Hendricks’s central concern with the relationship between language and vision as they act on perception. In particular, they also display his interest in the naming capacity of language and his use of titles to shape viewers’ expectations and thereby preconfigure perception. The bars of gold bullion are resonant precisely because we see them as a material representation of the artist’s “tax” — which has daringly not been paid. The detritus in the sack is poignant if and only if it really constitutes the “room” Hendricks has chopped to bits — otherwise it’s just garbage. The small pile of sand is fascinating only in relation to the strange immensity and precision of the number “3,281,579” — a sum which can’t possibly be accurate, but would be all the more unbearable if it were. In all of these cases there is a curious and intentional slippage between what we have been told to look for by Hendricks, and what he has shown us. In Eye, this slippage is almost literally visualized by the jagged path of his eyes, mapping a series of texts in a form that deliberately emphasizes their absence. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty once compared language to a footprint — a trace left behind by the thoughts it seeks to record. In the case of Eye, we are left with only the path of those footprints, and no way to gauge even their width, breadth, or depth.
Taken as a whole, the art of Jochem Hendricks is less about what we see than what we think about as we see. It is conceptual art in the age of the rematerialized art object. Here, the object functions neither as an exercise in style, nor as an occasion for the display of craft. Instead, Hendricks conceives each of his conceptual projects as sui generis engagements in the philosophical, aesthetic, and social questions that concern him. His pieces operate largely on their own and seek little of the discursive relationship with tradition so typical of, say, modern painting, where the meaning of each individual effort is underwritten by its relationship to the larger history of the medium. In contrast, Hendricks’s works feel at times more like individual inventions or experiments than art objects; but regardless of what we call them, they force a collision between vision, perception, and cognition that is revealing and rewarding. The gold bars of Tax, the small pile of sand on a plate, the shredded junk of Room in a Sack, the meandering, maniacal lines across an expanse of cheap newsprint — all of these are carefully planned intersections where the what of an art object’s construction and presentation meets the how of our way of knowing and recognizing it.
To conclude, it is worth noting that Jochem Hendricks is indeed an artist and not a scientist, inventor, or philosopher. But his way of being an artist belongs distinctly to this moment, in which art, whatever else it seeks to be, is driven by idea. Viewing his work means perceiving the gap between visibly stated conditions and conceptually implied situations, between what we can see with our eyes and what we can only contemplate with our minds.