Jochem Hendricks

Jochem Hendricks, 2007
Sally O’Reilly

Text for the catalogue Jochem Hendricks”, Haunch of Venison, 2007 / Sally O’Reilly is a writer and critic and lives in London

As viewers of art we are liberal only up to a point: there is a threshold beyond which we cease to grant artistic licenses and start to impose and police certain limits. Jochem Hendricks is mordantly fascinated by this point. He wilfully stretches our liberal tolerance and stirs up our indignation, although rather than employing the over-familiar sensation of abject imagery, he instead slowly makes us aware of an artwork’s backstory, which often unfurls under the momentum of its title or an anecdotal appendix. His outrageous claims dawn on us with such stealth that we are caught on the back foot and our first impulse is denial, the second to demand proof.

For Hendricks an artwork is a mode of transportation that conveys an abstract idea into the conscience of the viewer, just as an ethical stance represents an internal moral structure to be agreed with or refuted. The mode of this transportation, however, need not reside entirely in imagery. It is the title and date of 5,279,063 Grains of Sand (2001–3) – a glass vessel part-full of grains of sand – that invite us to believe the artist has, with the aid of assistants we hope, actually counted out the individual grains of sand. Indeed he has employed people to count the grains (often illegal immigrants) but, unlike a gun in an evidence bag, this sculptural object could never carry the status of irrefutable proof, as the artist is in the business of artifice and illusion. And yet, whether we believe Hendricks or not, it is still possible, and perhaps even more compelling, to discuss implications of futile labour and work ethic in the art market.

The illusion most commonly performed by the artist is that of conjuring up something that is distant or past or imaginary or impossible. Hendricks subverts this in Pack (2003–6), where the representation of each fighting dog is so close to the real thing that we cannot quite identify the gap. The illusion is almost too good, but whereas the physicality of the dog has persisted, the all-important animus is absent; and yet their poses – the quizzically pricked ears, the confrontational muzzle, the almost coquettish splay of the legs and turn of the neck – embody that animus. Although these taxidermied animals will never snarl or slaver or fly off the handle again, they appear permanently poised to do so, so that we are put through the emotional mill, with the initial shock of physical threat turning to relief that the beasts are not alive, which is eventually replaced by horror that they once were. But then we shift into another register again when the piece is documented. Our understanding of photography reinstates this moment of permanent stasis to the curve of time, so that the dogs are notionally resurrected, appearing as a live, albeit distant, threat once more.

Hendricks exploits our ambivalence towards photography as documentation once more in Oleg’s Ear (2004–6). A portrait of a young man – about whom we, and Hendricks, know nothing but his name – shows that he is missing the top of his right ear and wears an earring in the remaining tatter of lobe. Next to the photograph hangs a framed velvet mount in which the earring is displayed. It is gold, set with a yellowish substance, which we find, if we read the press release, is a synthetic diamond made from the top part of Oleg’s ear. There are a number of companies around the world that manufacture diamonds from carbon-based matter for the drilling industry, compressing it at immense pressures and temperatures for a fraction of the natural geological time required, and there are some that will turn your grandmother into a diamond, should you wish to have her set into your tooth or hung round your neck in glamorous memorialisation. Hendricks’ cooption of the technique pre-empted, and pastiches, this idea, as he in effect invited Oleg to bury the dismembered part of his ear in its own lobe.

The application of this technology to what some may consider dubious or absurd ends, prompts a number of questions regarding use and surplus value, but it also asks us to consider what is so sacrosanct about human flesh which, when detached, is only inanimate carbon-based matter after all? Why will we not countenance its use, even for something as ‘enriching’ as art and when the ear has been lost in an accident? These are similar questions that besiege scientists engaged in sensitive areas of research, such as biotechnology and the Human Genome Project, but surely art can provide an arena in which to consider them coolly, beyond the emotive contexts of medicine and food supply.

The framed earring implores us to believe that the photograph is not faked; and yet there is no guarantee that it is not yet another layer of subterfuge. Over-explanation is, after all, one of the giveaways of the liar. Similarly, Left Defender Right Leg (2002–5) presents a toenail alongside the diamond to evoke the footballer’s leg from which it was manufactured. But why should we require evidence that an artist has used human body parts any more than they have seen the unicorn they paint? The difference is, of course, that body parts carry in their wake messy ethical issues. The immoral or unethical is something that art has always depicted, but supposedly should never actually be. And we are stirred to outrage when an artwork hinges on not what is depicted but how it is represented: a picture of a mass murderer is one thing, but the use of children’s handprints in its fabrication is quite another.

Hendricks’ ‘Concetti’ series demonstrates this rather elegantly. Using a variety of canvases and metal sheeting as targets, he has shot at them from a range of distances and with various hand-held weapons. The bullets at times scorch their way clear through, at others make a bruising dent; each mark is not merely the representation of but the actual effect of gunshot. Canvases with one or two bullet holes evoke a fatally wounded body, while the metal panels, with contingent patterning of scattered shot, almost pass as decorative abstract pieces until we consider the mode of their making. We sense the effect of impact, which infects the anodyne imagery so that, once more, we are in turns seduced and disturbed.

Unusually for Hendricks, ‘Concetti’ draws directly on art-historical references, namely Lucio Fontana’s slashed and punctured canvases, although if Fontana described his work as ‘art for the space age’, Hendricks reminds us of the curdling of twentieth-century utopianism. Such art-historical associations are an extension of Hendricks’ delight in systems of logic and association throughout his practice. For instance, the footballer lost his leg to smoking and so the diamond lies on a black velvet cushion stuffed with the grimly named Black Hand tobacco. Hendricks often selects signifiers and archetypes with inherent or received meaning to use as a sort of metalanguage to create scenarios that are at once deeply serious and, rather confusingly, hilariously ridiculous. His series of diamonds made from the bodies of budgerigars, canaries and a crow, for instance, prompt laughter tempered by self-censorship. Each diamond is displayed in a vitrine on a cushion filled with birdseed and surrounded by its blue, green or black plucked feathers. It looks for all the world as if the symbol of the soul has exploded – poof – instantaneously transformed into a camp cabaret get-up. Formally it appeals to our sense of slapstick, but then its content gives our conscience a nudge: should we find this funny? Of course we should, because if we want to discuss ethical issues then, as Hendricks points out, laughter is a reliable sign that everyone has at least recognised the starting point.