Jochem Hendricks

The bit parts and the major players in the entourage of Jochem Hendricks, 2012
Stephen Foster

Text for the catalogue Jochem Hendricks”, Distanz Verlag, 2012 / Stephen Foster was the director of John Hansard Gallery, Southampton until 2017

One day, some years ago, the artist Jochem Hendricks went exploring in the derelict buildings adjacent to his studio in his native Frankfurt. Eventually he came across, as one does in these kinds of situations, an old trunk. He slowly opened it, and to his astonishment, he found that it contained an archive of police photographs from the 1970s. They were mostly film and photographic negatives, but he soon realised that they contained images of acts of terrorism, bank robberies, and demonstrations. A rich treasure trove indeed. But what should he do with such a magnificent haul?

Some years later he met Magdalena Kopp, a member of the Revolutionäre Zellen in the 1970s and the ex wife of Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), the international terrorist who was imprisoned with a double life sentence in 1997 for a string of atrocities committed in the 1970s and 80s. Magdalena had been a brilliant young photographer in her early years, but had to give it up as she pursued her life with Carlos. Clearly she hoped to return to photography because during her life on the run she had carried an enormous enlarger around with her, which remained unused. She had not worked in a darkroom for more than thirty years, but Hendricks immediately set about meeting her, and proposed that they collaborate in printing these images on archival paper. He set up a laboratory where Magdalena could work, and now pays her for her work as a collaborator. Together they make the series Crime Terror Riots and the costs of the project are borne by the sale of the works. The project will go on for as long as there is a public to buy them.

There are many interesting aspects to this fascinating story, but one of the most compelling is the fact that the hand of Hendricks the artist has not played a part in making the work. The original photographic material was made by a group of anonymous police photographers over a period of time in the 1970s and 80s. Hendricks does not even decide on which images to print alone, but makes the decisions together with Kopp, who is in a sense the creative co-producer in the project. However, he insists that the works of art are his and his alone, having conceived the idea, and overseen its realisation. Wherever possible he accredits his collaborators and pays them the going rate for the specialist services that they offer, but he remains the sole artist.

It a similar vein, and occurring at the same time as the production of Crime Terror Riots, the artist begins looking for artists to paint pictures for him. Because he is fascinated by the concept of value and world economics generally, and value and world economics in art especially, he is searching internationally for artists to paint his pictures, thinking that they should come from different continents. His investigation starts on the internet, but this is useless. What countries should he choose? What kind of artists is he looking for? Googling at random in this way produces too much information. How can he even tell whether these artists would be capable of following his instructions competently? Whilst he could conceivably find some exceptionally good artists using this method, their costs are likely to be unbelievably prohibitive. So he then undertakes the process of painstaking research that accompanies many of his projects. He begins by contacting artist friends and acquaintances from around the world, which leads to a chain reaction of information that gets him nearer and nearer to what he needs. Eventually he settles on three painters from three different continents.

What he was really looking for were three different kinds of painters, who would produce very different types of painting, even though they will all be painting the same subject. They would need to be able to understand Hendricks’s instructions, and would work for a fee that is within the artists budget. He has selected an artist from Australia, another from Asia and one from the United States. One is a very straightforward, technical painter, competent yet fairly unimaginative. One he describes as a ‘delicious’ painter, whose understanding of the conceptual nature of the project is significant. The final one is a painter who paints in a very traditional style, in the style of old masters. He gives them all the same image to paint on a canvas of the same size. But he will negotiate with each one, independently, the manner of their production. Thus, the project Intercontinental Paintings is born.

The intercontinental theme of the work continues as he sources his timber from west Central Africa, again using contacts that he has used before from the region. Having sourced his timber, he imports it to Frankfurt. Here he finds a carpenter to make stretchers for him. During the negotiation, he insists that the carpenter should be creative in the process, asking him to develop his own ideas into the production of the painting. As with the painters, he creates a further collaborative relationship.

As with much of his work, this project deals with aspects of the global economy. International trade is, of course, as old as the hills, but the main reason that trade has become increasingly globalised is to cut costs, because the value of human labour in the poorest parts of the world becomes secondary to material costs, and the cost of transport becomes an ever smaller part of overall budgets. Much of this delicate formula is driven by economies of scale. Production generally follows labour costs which drive prices down worldwide. The cost of transport is traditionally insignificant in comparison to labour costs, and cheap imports increasingly flood Western markets. But Hendricks has turned this on its head and while he has got the best deal he can find, the production of these works becomes prohibitive. Importing each canvas, rolled and boxed, is a very expensive business, but even the economics of international air freight is an important learning experience for him. He discovers that his original thought, to have a friend or colleague carry the parcel over in the cabin proves to be vastly more expensive than shipping the package by freight or even in the hold of the aeroplane. Learning how to do things in this way could make Hendricks appear like a novice, but even here he is making a point. At each stage he learns how to do things as if he is inventing everything from scratch. Starting with a blank sheet of paper. So eventually he discovers that each painting costs thousands of dollars to produce and ship to Frankfurt, making it hugely uneconomical to produce. But still he continues. Hendricks again paid a negotiated but similar fee to the artists for their work, which may well of course vary in value from country to country. He increases the payment to each artist once the paintings are sold.

In this way, Hendricks adds to his entourage of collaborators. It is a cast of, if not thousands, then certainly many scores of partners that he has gathered along the way. Some will get paid once, for a very specific and specialised piece of work that they have undertaken, and some will be taken on to the burgeoning pay-roll for a longer period of time, as another project gets underway. Some are local people with specialised skills who the artist works with frequently, and some come from far-flung parts of the world whose skills the artist will use only once. Some have very heavy fees because their expertise is rare and highly valued, some come from countries where the economy is so depressed that the fee seems negligible by Western standards. Some are named collaborators, and some remain anonymous. And some, like Hendricks’s tax lawyer, take a work each year in lieu of payment.

Hendricks can find himself working with friends and colleagues who have specialised skills again and again, whilst often he will enter into some very challenging and even dangerous places. His entourage consists of the motleyest collection; a cast of every imaginable player. It includes the shady middlemen who acquired body parts from Eastern Europe, and the men from the research institute in Kiev who made synthetic diamonds out of them under equally dubious circumstances. There’s Ulrich Lang, chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt, who gilded the avatar, and all the people who will be involved in clothing it. There are the people who threw stones at the windows and the people who counted the grains of sand. There’s Filipino Annelie Ataccdor Alingasa who sold her hair, and the team of women from the Cameroon who glued it all together, end to end. There’s the taxidermist, the forger, and Hendricks’s own sister who is the part time owner of the Mazda MX5 sports car when it isn’t Part-time Sculpture. There’s the man who lost an ear, and the man who lost a leg, and there are many, many more.

Hendricks’s approach appears deeply eclectic with no overarching ‘look’ or ‘style’ to create a sense of unity to such a disparate group of works. But he insists that he is driven by those things that interest him, and he is interested in practically everything! In addition to this he starts completely anew with each project, devising his method of working afresh, each time. It is as if he is conceiving projects with the intention of coming to terms with the world and how it works, and his projects are the result of this activity. His interest in the globalisation of labour, the world economy, and the art economy are consistent themes. But he is also interested in value, and especially the relative value of human labour.

At times he can be extremely mischievous, challenging our perceptions of what is acceptable behaviour. Hendricks knows that the State will never make aesthetic judgements about what does or does not constitute a work of art so, with advice from his tax lawyer, he ploughs all the profits from his year’s activity into the creation of new works of art. At other times he enters into a more sinister world where he occasionally needs bodyguards or agents to negotiate on his behalf in order to acquire his materials or negotiate other dodgy deals that would be illegal or extremely difficult in the West. He will pay whatever is the accepted fee in whatever country he is dealing with, and in whatever context. Some fees can thus be extremely high, whilst some are criminally low.

Of course at the heart of all this are issues of ethics, honesty and trust. The experience for us is rather like looking for a magician, only to find that you are watching a street trickster with three cups and a ball. You find yourself concentrating so hard to keep your eye on the ball that you miss the real magic, which is happening elsewhere. How clever of you, Jochem Hendricks, to play a double bluff with each turn of events. And whilst you try to be value neutral, you display deeply ethical attitudes in some instances and in others the ethical dimension appears to be entirely arbitrary, or confused, or positively perverse. Just like the world itself, which you are attempting to circumnavigate in your head. After all you are only finding your own set of values as you make your way in the world, and despite what most of us think, there is really no universal rule book available.

What is most compelling through all of these works is a really gripping narrative that will draw the audience in completely. The visual nature of the work serves to reinforce the narrative. Ever since the dawn of civilisation storytelling has been an essential component of human understanding; indeed, it may well be the defining component of civilisation itself. Such narratives create a collective unconscious which is part of the handing down of experience from generation to generation. Each civilisation has had its specialist storytellers who can recount events that make our everyday experiences more vital, more memorable, and more real. In early cultures the stories were narrated orally, and handed down by memory. And the juxtapositioning of visual elements only serves to reinforce the tale itself. The tattoos of ancient aboriginal storytellers, for example, were drawn on the body as an aide memoir for the tales that they would tell. More recently such narratives were told through the written word, and more recently still, through film and television. Fables and myths are not the only type of storytelling, but they persist in various forms up to the present day. Political ideas and factual information becomes much more powerful, and memorable, if it is presented in the context of a story. No contestant on a TV reality singing competition can be seen on stage without first creating (or more likely having created for them) a compelling tale of why they should receive our vote before we even hear their voice.

Hendricks knows this, and knows that the narrative that supports the work is what helps to give the object itself the power to become a truly memorable and powerful image. So for example, in the case of Horizontal Hairdo, the resulting single, forty kilometre length is, on the face of it, a meaningless gesture, but makes sense in terms of exploring human value and human labour. But much more significantly, the story behind the image has the power to transcend. It helps to elevate the work of art itself to the kind of mythical image that stays in the back of the brain of the audience that receives it. This is exactly what happens to any truly great work of art.