Strange, provocative, often ugly narratives lie beneath the surface of the coolly conceptual artworks on show at Jochem Hendricks’ exhibition at John Hansard Gallery. Mark Sheerin reviews the German artist’s first UK show. 


There is a convertible Mazda parked up on a patch of lawn outside John Hansard Gallery. Chances are you won’t even notice this on your way in. But prompted by the exhibition notes, you cannot miss it on your way out. And suddenly it is shocking, not thanks to any aesthetic considerations, but thanks to the object’s compelling backstory. Backstory is something Jochem Hendricks does very well, and without it few of his works are much to look at and certainly not eyecatching.


Bringing together projects from the past decade, this is the artist’s first show in a UK public space. It may be heralded by the car, of which more later, but it opens with a void. Gallery One appears to hold no art whatsoever. But a plaque on the wall advertises a piece called Horizontal Hairdo. Only through further investigation and scrutiny of the notes does it become apparent that the fixture on the far wall is a reel around which is wound 25 miles of human hair. The strands have been glued together and now circumscribe the first space you come to in the show. Hendrick’s art is, once again, barely visible.


Jochem Hendricks, Collapsed Avatar, 2011-12. Image courtesy the artist.Collapsed Avatar, 2011-12 by Jochem Hendricks. Image courtesy the artist


To be fair to the German artist, there is more to see in the subsequent rooms. This touring show (which has come from Zurich and will next year appear in Walsall) includes more sculpture, plus photography, painting, drawing and film. But a sense of perversity and cynicism brings this all together. Much of the drawing for example, an “extensive portfolio” no less, has been shredded and dumped in a wastebasket fastened to the wall. Hendricks is nothing if not ruthless.


Meanwhile his paintings were produced by other artists on other continents and are now obscured by African-made wooden frames, which criss-cross the canvas and obscure it. Propped in a corner are the artworks’ shipping tubes, looking for all the world much like the ICBM missiles which this far ranging piece hints at. So these paintings – still lives and sunsets – are not pretty, despite the logistic challenges which went into their creation.


Jochem Hendricks, Crime – Terror – Riots (1973 - 2012), Bank Robbery. With Magdalena Kopp. Image courtesy the artist.Crime – Terror – Riots (1973 – 2012), Bank Robbery by Jochem Hendricks. With Magdalena Kopp. Image courtesy the artist


Things also turn ugly nearby where a small rough gem sits on a black velvet cushion. We are told this was the amputated leg of a footballer, sent to a former Soviet research institute for transformation into carbon and subsequent synthesis into a diamond. But in case we marvel too closely at the precious stone, it is presented next to a yellowing nail from a big toe. And the cushion, we are also informed is stuffed with tobacco, the toxic substance which caused the removal of this leg in the first place.


As you can see, Hendricks likes a yarn. But visitors may soon find themselves wondering whether or not he can be trusted. Further sculptures here are glass bulbs which purport to contain over a million individually counted grains of sand. No matter how many assistants he has worked with, this seems unlikely, but once this conceptual artist plants the seed of an idea you can feel the dirty granules under your own fingernails. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he used weighing scales.


In truth there are two shows here in Southampton. In one of them, Hendricks has indeed arranged for the counting of sand, the glueing of hair, or the compression of an amputated limb. But in an alternate visit one can equally believe that everything you see here is a hoax. And to be honest, I am not sure which makes for the better experience. Just who is the better artist, Hendricks the miracle worker or Hendricks the out and out cynic?


Perhaps he is both. The most involved piece in the show is a figurine in the style of Giacometti which appeared in a Hendricks show entitled Legal Crimes. Because of this the artist came to the attention of the Hamburger Kunsthalle from which a similar statue had been stolen. This adds plenty of layers to a piece which now includes the transcription of a suspicious phone call by the police and a letter to that gallery from the artist in which he offers his bronze figure as a replacement.


Jochem Hendricks at John Hansard GalleryJochem Hendricks at John Hansard Gallery


If any artist were capable of such a heist, other works suggest it could be this one. His many Concetti reliefs, pockmarked picture planes in aluminium, copper and brass, have been made with a firearm. Elsewhere he displays an entire series about bank robberies, inspired by the discovery of a police archive and made with the help of photographer and former terrorist Magdalena Kopp. Both works bring a transgressive energy to bear on proceedings, as if the potential deceptions were not enough.


But it might be wrong to cast doubt on one of the most innovative projects included in the current show. These are the eye drawings in which Hendricks employs “infra-red, video and computer-techniques” to make sketches using no more than the movement of his own eyes. The exhibition catalogue features a plausible enough photo of work in progress in which Hendricks is goggled up and wired to machines. The drawing is really skilled. So is it possible for one man to control his eyeballs in this way, be they a talented artist or not? One really hopes so. It would redeem him.


Which brings us back to the sportscar which also happens to be only semi-legit. In perhaps his greatest act of mischief the German artist has bought the bestselling X5 as material for a sculpture to be written off against tax. And yet, for half the year, it doubles as his preferred mode of transportation. Hendricks has also used a scanner to sculpt a replica of himself which he is currently outfitting with luxury clothes and accessories, all tax deductible, of course.


Since tax-dodging is so highly topical, Part Time Sculpture and the Avatar Luxus are true artworks for our time. Hendricks’ engagement with political and geopolitical issues has a precedent in the work of, say, Alighiero Boetti, and a contemporary echo in the work of another great storyteller, Francis Alÿs. Though possibly neither are so clinical, hard-edged and ironic as the German.


Off campus, in the window of John Hansard Central in Southampton, another Hendricks film Front Windows [main image] plays to a busy city street. In this six minute loop the windows of a mansion get smashed from the inside one by one. It is never clear which will be next, and we are told the rhythm has been composed for “contrast and tension“. That at least is true, since these qualities seem to pervade everything this cool-headed artist does. And while difficult to fathom how this final work was orchestrated in real time, the overall effect is totally convincing. As these artistic pranks serve to highlight, seeing really is believing.


Jochem Hendricks, John Hansard Gallery, 6 November – 20 December 2012