Jochem Hendricks

Tear here, 2012
Dorothea Strauss

Text for the catalogue Jochem Hendricks”, Distanz Verlag, 2012 / Dorothea Strauss was director of Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich until 2013

Spring 2002. For the two policemen inspecting Kunstverein Freiburg it’s a welcome change of pace. When confronted by an exhibition hall that is as good as empty they start to get a little troubled; in the middle is a white tower, almost eight meters high, and around it a few smaller items. This is not the scene of a crime which they are used to examining. “Who’s in charge here?” their words echo in the large space. The guardian, a young law student and a fan of US crime series, rushes up. “Have you got IDs?” The two are stunned. “But can’t you see our uniforms!” – “Well, sure, but you could have borrowed them. That’s no big deal.” – “Now you listen! Word has it there’re stolen goods here and we have to establish what’s what. So who’s in charge?” – “The manager, now!” The student is not to be shaken. “I’ll only call her if you two can furnish IDs.” Annoyed, the two cops produce their ID tags.

The mood is slightly tense when the director arrives on the scene. “Good day! Is there a prob-lem?” – “We’ve been notified that stolen items are on show here.” – “And who notified you of that?” – “That’s irrelevant. Is it that thing back there”, the policeman points to Chocolottery, “stolen?” – “No. That work is not stolen.” – “So. And what here is stolen?” – “Well, the artist Jochem Hendricks claims the tower was stolen.” “What? The tower?” – “Yes, the construction materials for it, the items and things you will find inside it. Well, everything. But you know things aren’t that simple when it comes to truth and artist. You never know for sure if it’s right or not. That’s what it’s all about.” 

The director had secretly expected an incident like this would happen sooner or later. And now she’s annoyed that she’s not prepared and hasn’t got a video camera to record everything. The two cops walk round and round the tower. “Go on in.” – “Na, we can see everything from the outside.” The two start measuring the tower. “So you don’t really know whether it was stolen?” – “No, I can’t follow the artist round all the time. As an art cop, as it were. That would be…” The two policemen don’t find this funny. 

“Well, how to explain this to you? Perhaps the tower is stolen, and perhaps not.” – “And what does the artist have to say?” – “He insists he must insist it’s stolen.” – “What?” – “Well, that’s the whole thing, you see. In art today a lot has to do with grabbing attention, with upsetting the applecart, with causing uncertainty.” – “Sure, especially with things like this that look nothing special. Is this art?” – “Well you definitely noticed the chocolate bars at the back quickly enough.” – “Are they made of real chocolate?”. – “No. They’re cast from resin. But six of them are filled with silver.” – “Silver? Why on earth?” – “Because that way you don’t know which is really valuable. You’d have to destroy them all to find out. And then maybe you don’t find any silver after all. But that would in itself be too late and you’d already be criminals. Because you’d have vandalised the exhibition. And vandalism is a criminal act. So we’d then need two other policemen, namely to arrest you two. Tough, huh?” The cops stare at the director. “We’ll be back.” – “Great. Fine! I’d be only too happy. And why not bring some of the others from the precinct along with you? And your boss. We could then host an event on finding out the trust in art and in life. That’d be great. But please ring first.” The two turn and beat a hasty retreat. Not to be seen again. Which was a real pity.

Where is the soul located?
It starts with drawings.

There is a great portrait of French philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes by Dutch painter Franz Hals, dating from 1648, that is two years before Descartes’ death. With an attentive, spry gaze, his eyebrows raised with a touch of arrogance, the founder of Rationalism looks out at us. As if, across all the centuries, he wishes to admonish us all not to be too gullible. For, or so his conviction, only he who doubts reaches knowledge. Cogito, ergo sum – ‘I think therefore I am’ was his key maxim. And Descartes believed that the soul was located in the pineal gland, a small organ in the epithalamus, part of the diencephalon. 

The mid-1980s saw radical change, with Jochem Hendricks turning his back on painting. He was living in New York at the time and produced a series of fine, mostly untitled pencil and ink drawings. One of these drawings shows a brain, with an intimation of the extended spinal cord. In the middle of the brain a discerning eye will detect the pineal gland. Written in a classical typewriter font over the drawing we read: “Descartes’s soul”.  

In an historically verified and yet utopian/playful manner, Hendricks touches here on the puzzle as to where the soul is located. Does he mean this ironically? There is no easy answer to this question and in Jochem Hendricks’s oeuvre this is often a bit of a stumbling block: You stumble over your own rational knowledge, which contradicts your secret wishes, such as wanting to find out what the soul actually is.   

In another drawing we can again see a brain, this time connected to the human glandular system. Here there are intimations of the most important glands that influence the human body, defining their physical and emotional life, collectively known as the endocrine system, a system to control our body functions. On the upper section of the sheet we see the brain, and in it, set off by colors, the pineal gland and the hypophysis. The pineal gland produces the hormone melatonin, which among other things controls our sleep/wake rhythm; the hypophysis is the center of our entire hormone system. From these two organs, fine white lines lead from the brain to the thyroid gland, which stores iodine and also produces the hormone thyroxin, which is among other things important for our energy metabolism. From here there are once again fine lines connecting the adrenal gland and the sex glands. In other words, what we see is a stylised representation of the inner system by which we function. As we know, biochemistry also controls our emotional sensibilities. Some indeed go so far as to claim that everything is only a matter of biochemistry.

Do we have a free will? Can the mind and soul be located, the body dissected into its physical and psychic components? During his time in New York, Hendricks concerned himself most closely with the natural sciences, with the human body, with anthropological ideas, and philosophy. He read a lot, cutting across the disciplines, forged links, researched things, and was interested in abstruse stories. And thus even then, wit, humor, irony and not rarely black humor repeatedly cropped up in his works. Another of his drawings shows this: What we see are two round microscopic enlargements of a blood sample containing gonorrhea, generally called ‘the clap’. Above it, again in typed writing, we read: “In special cases, infected tonsils can indicate a throat gonorrhea. For more information consult the French.” 

The other drawings in this series are also linked to cheeky, ironic and decidedly frivolous texts. These are drawings that both deliberately and provocatively hold up Concept Art’s formal aesthetic aura on high like some sort of art-historical seal of approval. Usually Hendricks conceals a variety of references and allusions in these aphorism-like pseudo-meaningful statements. As in the above-mentioned drawing: Syphilis, alongside gonorrhea one of the most frequent sexually-transmitted diseases, is often referred to in colloquial German as “French disease”. 

Hendricks is fascinated by the human being, by human existence, with all the troubles, desires, hopes, intellectual abilities, not to mention the lack of success, the doubts, the failures. These are all themes that run like a red thread through his oeuvre. At an early point he was already interested in systemic and analytical things, the senseless and the forlorn, for example in his series of drawings A Theory of Billiards (see p. 168). Starting with the physical laws of playing billiards (e.g., entry angle is equal to exit angle), across eight sheets Jochem Hendricks develops ever more complex directions for the stylised billiard balls, such that by the last sheet everything dissolves and the balls clumsily travel across the sheet as non-shapes. Here we can again see a key theme in Hendricks’s mindset: Logic meets confusion and contradiction, order loses its bearings. 

As early as 1984 Hendricks wished to draw his hand without using it. Which is why the piece he made back then, entitled Peep, is so fascinating: containing the seed of the Eye Drawings: for eight years later Hendricks took up the principle presented in the 1984 piece in the new work series (see p. 158) – albeit it second time round with highly scientific and technical equipment. Peep is an analog early version of the Eye Drawings: The awkward, seemingly slightly blurred drawing of a face arises by Hendricks translating his eye movements and thus the perception process direct into  an ink drawing. 

The title alludes to a peepshow, i.e., to a voyeur, but also, for example, to the cult film Peeping Tom, in which a photo-obsessed psychopath photographs his victims while killing them with a stiletto which is attached to his camera. 

Hendricks repeatedly creates linkages of cultural and scientific backgrounds and that form the basis for artistic ideas. Viewers of his works often ask what one can do with all the knowledge that becomes directly or indirectly clear. How does it influence responses to his works? Because, if not immediately, the various influences in the drawings have an effect – and it is not always easy to endure it. If only because we see the latent tension of a dilemma. A fundamental dilemma that applies to us all, namely how life with all its gamut of aspects, can be mastered in the first place.

Thus, even back then Hendricks’s offered to take the viewer by the hand and think about the various, existential contexts (without forgetting humor), or even think about them at all in the first place. Hendricks himself terms his time in New York as “a process of artistic self-release”. And looking back each of the series of drawings from 1984-85 seems to be a point of no return. These drawings mark the beginning of Jochem Hendricks’s oeuvre.

How far does pain go?
The philosophy of searching.
Different degrees of toughness. 

In 1974–75, Joseph Beuys produced his environment zeige deine wunde (show your wound). For the piece, he staged various objects in space, such as pieces of slate, stretchers for corpses, a test tube, a fever thermometer, issues of leftist Italian newspaper Lotta Continua and many other objects. Beuys had to put up with a lot of scorn for the work. But for many years it was considered one of his decisive works in terms of formal aesthetics and philosophical thrust. 

As an artist, Jochem Hendricks does not consider himself in Beuys’s lineage, but Beuys is nevertheless of importance to him. Precisely the question of the “wound” is likewise latently present in his works and it therefore bears reconsidering Beuys’s installation: Essentially, his piece focuses on therapy and healing, on the fact that those who show their wounds may be healed. And if instead of therapy and healing we use less emotionally charged words, such as investigation and progress, then it becomes clear that in the final instance the idea is also an analytical process of awareness making. The intention is not to shy away from conflicts and fears, but to square up to them. All of this also applies to countless of Jochem Hendricks’s works. In the context of his works on could also say “No risk, no fun”, which in his case means as much as: only if you are prepared to accept his terms will you experience more. 

The “wounds” in Hendricks’s oeuvre resemble points designed to tear: his works offer structures for keeping the damage to a minimum. Damage here is meant as something that has to do with fear, the fear that one might not be able to master life and all its imponderables. 

One of the central structures Hendricks uses to dampen all concerns is irony and here, his approach is starkly different to that of Beuys. Moreover, in his aesthetic he never makes use of the theme of decay and decomposition. On the contrary: His pieces are always characterised by great, cool precision. At the same time, they address all sorts of fears, albeit ones that are less manifest and existential than in a Beuys – but with a degree of latency, a pitilessness and above all with acuity. Works by Jochem Hendricks rarely seem empathetic; they do not appear to exhibit sympathy and instead somehow seek to put their finger in the wound. This should not be read to mean that in Hendricks’s oeuvre there is no stress on empathy, but Hendricks passes the responsibility on to the viewer. Somehow as if the works seek to test the viewers. And at this juncture Joseph Beuys shines through again, the man who proposed that all people are artists – as long as they assume responsibility and do not judge an artwork from a consumerist perspective. 

In his 1989 series of Formations (Hendricks was now living in Frankfurt/Main and working in different media) he places the recurrent theme of a little flying black angel in a Moebius strip reminiscent of a double helix, using as his material silhouette cut-out paper. 

Hendricks bor-rowed the figure of the angel from a painting by Renaissance artist Raphael. And what other subjects does he quote here? All human chromosomes are organised in the form of a double helix, which has a beginning and an end. By contrast, “Bernoulli’s lemniscate” (from the Latin lemniscus or loop) resembles a reclining eight with no beginning or end. Named after Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, this geometric curve is used to symbolise infinity. In his piece Hendricks binds legend, belief and reality: the wondrous phenomenon of the angel, the scientifically proven structure of human genetic material and the image for infinity – which is also a mathematical construct. 

In this work, we again sense the question of why everything in life is the way it is. Is there no escape from the real world? Is everything scientific, everything explainable, or is there something else behind the curtain? Can we influence our destiny? Hendricks repeatedly poses these questions in a truly desperate-humorous way, and he leaves no doubt as to his conviction: even the angel cannot escape the system.

Hendricks’s Dog pieces attest to his preference for consciously staged moments of latent threats, uncertainty or indignation. If confronted by his Pack dating from 2003–06 (see p. 96) for the first time, you will be as fascinated as you will be repelled. It is a band of fighting dogs, standing, lying, in part with aggressive postures. 

There is a widespread general fear of dogs and of fighting dogs in particular. While these dogs are stuffed, to put it in the vernacular, meaning a taxidermist has treated them, but their perfection does not show this. Highly irritating are the strange ways they hold their heads, and one might be forgiven asking how Hendricks actually obtained these dead dogs. 

Pack is a good example of Jochem Hendricks’s artistic strategy: wounds for him are also weapons. He uses his works to attack prejudices. And yet again he does so at two levels, as there are prejudices simply because they are borne out frequently. In other words, on one hand the sense of prejudice does not get elided and, on the other, we are challenged to change our perspective. 

On closer inspection you will notice that some of the dogs were possibly once just doting, slightly overweight doggies, but your perception is now unsettled. Moreover, there’s a very unpleasant smell associated with the stuffed animals.

Viewing Hendricks’s works usually means remaining tense. A calm gaze that falls in love with the work is not something Hendricks is interested in inculcating. Because the feeling of unpleasantness that so often arises when viewing his work is one of the true keys to ensuring we are never cool and distanced. 

A purported fissure.
Criminal energy as an imaginative space.

Until the end of the 1990s, Jochem Hendricks’s oeuvre had a strongly conceptual aesthetic. During this period, he repeatedly addressed subject matter from an intellectual/conceptual angle, where the idea was stronger than the material realisation. He was above all interested in questions such as were in fashion world-wide back then, like questioning the art context or seeing art as an instrument for conveying knowledge. During this time, his exhibitions were characterised by extremely complex content, although in terms of appearance they were usually plain and somewhat dry. 

This changed abruptly in 2002. In Kunst-verein Freiburg alongside works of the prior decade, he also showcased the series entitled Stolen Objects. With these items Hendricks trod the thin and dodgy line between the law and the illegal. Is it true what he tells the audience or is this smart PR work? 

Hendricks deliberately leaves the question unanswered. And he discovered with the theme of “criminal energy” a new opportunity for transfer, one that had long interested him, as it offered a strong and yet ambivalent image on the themes of longing, yearning, and desire. The theme of illegality offered him a new pool as it were, a new stock of fissures, a new setting, drawing on which he could tackle the questions of existence artistically on even broader foundations. In the years that followed, criminal energy was to become something of the litmus test for ambivalent feelings of all kinds.

At Hendricks’s exhibition in Freiburg a tower stood in the middle of the room, some eight meters high – viewers were able to enter it. In a pseudo-documentary video they were told that all the materials used to build it and all the things inside it, had been stolen. The work was entitled Maximum Base and thus took up the debate since Modernism on the plinth: here, the plinth is also the sculpture that it presents. 

For the first time, works by Jochem Hendricks appeared formally speaking as quite spectacular. He made use of a new format. 

Retrospectively, this development can be discerned in earlier pieces: in his Eye Drawings, in his sculpture Room in a Sack (see p. 148) and in the Flash photo series (see p. 146) Hendricks explored new forms of presentation, and in Flash already takes up the notion of transgressing the law and staging complex contexts more strongly by means of an aesthetically diverse use of media. As of 2000, Hendricks increasingly developed strategies to find an adequate form for the processual nature of his way of working.  

There is another reason for the seeming break of 2002: Jochem Hendricks takes years to develop his works. For example, during the 1990s he did much of the research for work groups that were finally realised years later. Because another key aspect of Jochem Hendricks’s pieces is the idea of cooperation. Hendricks seeks and finds (sometimes in a truly audacious manner) a wide variety of specialists world-wide, specialists who will prepare and realise his works. Working this way means that the consistency of the pieces is highly complex, as he shares the knowledge with these specialists and it also finds its way into the respective work. This is shown very clearly by the work groups of the last four years such as Luxury Avatar (see p. 33), the Dog pieces or the latest series of Intercontinental Paintings (see p. 44).

What goes to make a Jochem Hendricks work? The key feature is that they always entail a challenge. It is hardly possible to not respond to them, they trigger reactions. And do so neither emotionally nor intellectually. Have the grains of sand really all been counted? Did Hendricks really steal the objects and the beautiful Barcelona Chairs? Will the Luxury Avatar at some point be given an apartment of its own? And what does luxury mean to you anyway? Are you willing to destroy a work in order to find the purported silver ingots? And what happens to traditions and customs in a globalised world? – Jochem Hendricks takes us into exciting terrain defined by personal, socio-political and economic issues, where only rarely can we simply answer with a yes or a no. The answers are as complex as the questions. It’s better to continue on the search and in so doing expand on Descartes’ credo: I think, see and speak, therefore I am.