Strange and Complicated

Andrea Alessi

Paul Hendrikse’s Hauntology of Smoke and Ochre is a strange and complicated exhibition exploring the intersections of history, biography, fiction, and performance through the politicized character of Ingrid Jonker. Jonker, a South African poet/activist who killed herself in 1965 at age 32, has since become something of an icon in her native country; Nelson Mandela publicly recited one of her poems for the first democratic parliament assembly; her texts have been used repeatedly as song lyrics; and she is the subject of numerous plays, films, and documentaries. Because of her highly mediated biography, Hendrikse uses Jonker as the vehicle for his investigation of the interlaced vectors of history, personality, and mythology.

Hendrikse is not interested in the “real” Jonker, if such a person even exists; instead he celebrates the creation of Jonker’s social biography, exploring history and character as something constructed rather than given. Jonker’s texts and her mediated identities are assumed, transformed into symbols then imbued with various meanings by interested parties (à la Barthes). Actresses, biographers, admirers, detractors, politicians, and now Hendrikse piece together Jonker’s story, growing it into something ghost-like – unfixed yet omnipresent.

In Hendrikse’s subtle work it is not always clear where fictions have been transcribed onto an already uncertain “reality”. Even in his seemingly documentary moments, the artist complicates any straightforward understanding of his subject’s biography. In the two-channel video projection The tape recorded surprise; Interview with I.J. Hendrikse interviews two actresses; one recently portrayed Jonker in a play, and the other knew her as a child and always wanted to perform her. Though the interviews appear uncomplicated, the two women have actually swapped roles, each coaching the other on how to depict her falsified relationship to the iconic poet. There is no objective representation; as they resurrect Jonker’s character for public consumption their subjective interpretations create a part of her story.

For such seemingly targeted subject matter, the works sometimes have only a tangential relationship to Jonker. The third room hosts an installation consisting of three stacked groups of stenciled A5 paper. Each printed stack contains a short phrase that reads as stage directions or mantras stolen from self-help books; Wear slippers to parties; The person you are playing is you, but not you completely; Keep that pose. In fact, the texts are instructions for how to become Jonker, derived from the aforementioned video interviews. Visitors can take the papers with them, spreading their influence as they cast an ever-wider net of unmoored meaning.

Five slide projections on freestanding walls comprise the exhibition’s final work, Inventory of Possible Narrations. The four outer slideshows flash interior photographs of houses associated with Jonker’s life. On the central wall, short numbered texts are projected in a seemingly illogical sequence. Fragmented statements, mined from Hendrikse’s project records and letters, create an indecipherable narrative. It reads like a choose-your-own-adventure novel in which similar written “events” take place over and over again, changing slightly every few slides.

One can’t help but think that this historiographic investigation of a socially enshrined character is particularly relevant in the context of Jonker’s native South Africa. This is a place where unsettled historical narratives have so recently been subject to public construction and consumption. In the imagination of a new South Africa some histories will inevitably outlast others – that is the way with nation building exercises. The “invention” of Jonker is a part of this process, one which takes place not in courtrooms or committees but in performances, documentaries, and publicly mediated fantasy. Jonker is no longer here to speak for herself, but she remains present, perhaps more than she ever was in life, through her works and the ongoing public eulogy of her nebulous character.