ONE room of controversial artist Jochem Hendricks’ new exhibition contains nothing but a 25 mile length of human hair.

It was made by gluing single hairs end to end.

Other exhibits at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton include a synthetic diamond made from a human leg.

If it makes you a little uncomfortable, that’s the idea. In fact, Jochem admits that even he feels a bit uncomfortable about the leg diamond.

But then this is the artist’s speciality. He likes to “irritate” his audiences, to make them stop and think.

His other work includes:

  • A synthesised diamond made out of part of an ear – and worn in the remaining bit of ear;
  • A collection of items he stole;
  • A taxidermy pack of hunting dogs which include two of them ‘savaging’ dead pet dogs;
  • Collaboration with the former wife of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal;
  • An avatar of himself which has a lavish ‘lifestyle’ paid for out of his taxes.

Jochem likes to collaborate with other people – such as the group of Cameroon women who glued the 25 miles of hair together for Horizontal Hairdo. But often he has to be vague about who he works with and what he has done.

“Sometimes it’s not a good idea to put your cards on the table,” says the German artist.

“Some things I do are at the edge of legality. Even if I were to expose it for myself, I have to be careful not to get other people into trouble.

“Buying a leg isn’t possible in the West. It is possible in the East but it’s still illegal there, so if I gave you the name of the doctor who amputated it and someone in the Ukraine read it, that would be trouble for him.”

Jochem admits that the leg, which was turned into a synthetic diamond, is the piece he had most ethical worries about.

The diamond, now called Left Defender Right Leg, was made from the amputated leg of a football player (with his permission), which Jochem arranged for two former Soviet institutes to transform it. The leg was converted to carbon and then to pure graphite which was then used to create a synthetic diamond.

“You only find out what your boundaries are by sometimes going over them,” says Jochem.

“I’d started turning dead birds into synthetic diamonds and had established a system of contacts in Kiev. I’d said ‘do you think there’s a chance I could get an arm, a leg, a nose, or whatever?’ but I never thought it might become reality. Six months later I had a call saying ‘we’ve got a leg, do you want it?’. I didn’t say ‘yes’ immediately. Then I did say ‘yes’ though and felt funny about it.”

He also felt uncomfortable about stealing items, which created an exhibit.

“You’re taking risks and you know it’s criminal,” he says.

“Irritation is a good start for the artwork and the audience. It means you stop thinking in the usual way.

It gives you a chance to look at things differently.”

That exhibition, held in a small town in Germany, received a visit from the police and was also spun into chaos on the opening night when respectable art lovers began stealing and throwing around other pieces in the gallery.

His Luxus Avatar piece, some of which is at the John Hansard Gallery, is, he agrees, another legally questionable experiment.

The avatar is a casting of his own body, made partly out of gold, which has an ever-growing collection of luxury items, from Hermes clothes to a Masda MX5 sports car, bought with money that would otherwise have been paid as tax in his native Germany.

He explains that tax owed can be offset by buying art materials – and he chose gold. It’s a legal loophole which means he cannot legally drive the car – although he says he drove it to the Southampton exhibition.

“The interesting thing with the Luxus Avatar is that up to a certain point everything is fine and a step further it’s illegal.”

A key point of the piece is that the avatar – a replica of himself – has a more luxurious lifestyle than him.

“I used to have lots of money problems. The year that I started the Luxus Avatar piece was the first time I’d really sold my work and I made much more than I’d ever made. I was aware that I was going to have to pay a lot of tax and that didn’t feel good.

“It’s not that I’m not willing to pay taxes but when you make money for the first time if your life it’s a shock when you have to give it away.

“I had a difficult night thinking about what to do. A permanent question in my work is ‘what is right and what is wrong?’.

“I decided to make an artwork from my taxes rather than simply giving it to the state. I came up with the idea of buying gold bars to make the sculpture and keeping it.

“You realise that this is what people who really made money do. It’s the art of avoiding paying taxes.

“Then you look at what’s happened in Greece and see that if everyone does it, that’s the result.”

Jochem says that this has become his most popular artwork, especially among people who aren’t part of the ‘art crowd’.

“It’s frightening. You have permission from everyone to do something that is almost illegal – and when you see it in the bigger context it’s not even a good idea.”

Another of Jochem’s pieces, which he isn’t bringing to Southampton, is a pack of taxidermy fighting dogs.

Again it can cause extreme reactions in the audience.

He also worked on a photographic project with Magdalena Kopp, first wife of terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

Kopp was once a member of a German terrorist group, and was jailed for three years in the 1980s.

She and Jochem worked on a series of undercover photographs of depicted political conflicts; demonstrations, evictions, bank robberies and disasters of the seventies and eighties.

Jochem hopes that people will come and see his exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery but that what they get out of it is down to them.

“I start the game but whatever happens is fine, as long as people aren’t bored.”

  • Jochem Hendricks’ exhibition runs from Tuesday to December 20 at John Hansard main gallery on the University of Southampton Highfield Campus and Gallery Central in Civic Centre Road, Southampton.
  • Admission is free.
  • Open 11am-5pm Tuesday-Friday and 11am-4pm Saturday.