Taking Up the Thread Again: Conversations with the Figure in the Carpet

Max Benkendorff

‘For himself, beyond doubt, the thing we were all so blank about was vividly there. It was something, I guessed, in the primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet. He highly approved of this image when I used it, and he used another himself. “It’s the very string”, he said, “that my pearls are strung on!”‘ Henry James, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, first published in 1896

‘It is one of the functions of the third dimension to come to rescue when things get uncomfortable in the second.’ Rudolf Arnheim, ‘Toward a Psychology of Art’, 1966

To Be or Not to Be

One can hardly invite fictitious characters to dinner, let alone go shopping for a suit; but without a doubt they somehow exist. Most simply, characters can perhaps still be understood as quasi-real entities, objects in a fictional world or intersections of a textual reference system. Semiotic theorists regard them as signs in the text, where-as psychological theorists consider them to be notions in the head of readers or viewers. A third group considers them to be products of the communication between authors and their audience 1. In a story their function is to lend the plot coherence and meaning: a signifying thread along which the pearls of the action and meaning are threaded.

However, this does not just count in clearly fictional contexts, no; also in so-called real reality actual, existing – historical – people can adopt the fictitious traits of a character and as such guarantee sense and coherence. Political or leadership figures, for instance, often function as the symbolic figures in the identity-defining process in the founding stories of many nation states. For instance, the partisan leader Josip Broz, in socialist Yugoslavia, better known by his self-given pseudonym ‘Tito’. For a time after his death, the ‘fictitious figure’ of Tito continued to delicately live almost ‘undead’ in his self-made history. The sustained and continually told fiction had thereby a definitive influence on reality – in the form of the somewhat sustained unity of the socialist, multi-ethnic state. It was only the second, symbolic death that began to loosen the first knots in the fine political, ethnic and cultural weave of Yugoslavia. As discussed by the Slovakian philosopher and ideological critic Slavoj Zizek, figures can thus also function as the constitutive operations of an imaginary consummation. As a phantasm, the differences and conflicts cover over the constitutive inconclusiveness of symbolic systems and found such (collective) identities. In the societies of western parliamentary capitalism the social and symbolic network is today increasingly spread out and tied down with the help of pop-cultural forms and so- called celebrities and –narrated.

Histories now just need faces and if the protagonist shines and glitters – seems authentic – the story will turn to good account completely by itself, won’t it? The medially generated and mediated identity of these protagonists is solely made up of values and effects, that elicit an emotional affect in the army of their followers and viewers and as such leave traces in the medial recording systems: they are medial affect-clouds in the space of collective gestures and memory. Initially potentially warranted repetition and recurrence in the medial loop confers them as ‘trace’ reality and ‘eternal recurrence’.

This characteristic – to exist, strange as it is to say, just as an effect in the material world, while paradoxically necessarily producing these effects – is shared by media figures with another phenomenon, caught quasi ontologically in a precarious status between being and not being: wraiths, ghosts and phantoms. Absent, not real, not there, permeated nevertheless into (and interrupting the isolation and self presence of) everything that is always present, real and there. Like wraiths, (medial) characters leave behind no traces; because they are of course exactly that: the trace of a still incomplete past. In the annals of the culture industry one finds a myriad of these ‘undead’, perhaps an effect, that could be called post-history – the end of history. The collapse of the ‘grand narratives’ liberates a multiplicity of small histories; at the same time countless ‘historyless’ characters are caught up in the medial net of the spectacle. Wraiths, protagonists of a narrative future that has not – or not yet – been finished.

In the spectacle society things are narrated; well narrated. Identification and projec-tion have to completely merge into histories. The best medium is surely always a history that appears to be as ‘true’ and realistic as possible. In a market increasingly driven by attention to the product, this means: credibility. This gives the communica-tion society a highly sought after raw material: authenticity. We generally know the names of the protagonists very well; but what remains from the history when its leading player has disappeared and therefore leaves behind a little fissure, a gap between the world and their narrative?

Hauntology of Smoke and Ochre

The South African writer Ingrid Jonker is such a character, a remainder; a historical form, that has been caught up in the cultural store of the medial net – the famous figure in the carpet. Thus it is hardly surprising that it isn’t a ‘real’ person – the individual Jonker – that the artist Paul Hendrikse is interested in, but rather her public and symbolic representation. An identity that is followed, assembled, as well as scenically contextualised as a trace in various medial sign systems and cultural and political spheres. The phenomenon of her person offers the aforementioned thread, which, itself invisible, is threaded with single pearls and has the ability to hold such a narrative weave together. But from what fabric and with which threads is it woven?

The author, Jonker, is an exceedingly complex figure – if not a ‘complex’, then an organised totality of partly or completely unconscious ideas and memories, strongly engaged in affect – woven together from threads of history and narrative-biographical elements in the cultural and political ‘carpet’ of the South African Republic; only the after-image of her medial impression is present and tangible; as image: memory, story, gesture, comprehensible only in performative-theatrical mimesis.

In retrospect, Ingrid Jonker’s life, filled with only sparse biographical first-hand facts and documents, can hardly be called believable – authentic. Furthermore, her mystification and iconisation began only shortly after her seemingly literary death (she committed suicide by walking out into the sea around Cape Town). Information and details about Jonker have largely been created in the various interpretations and constructions since her death. She became a symbol and identification figure for many very diverse groups in society, as the daughter of a leading South African representative of the Apartheid regime, who through her poetry and particularly through her public appearances and engagements, was dismissed by her father in his role as a Chairman who created wide reaching censorship rules. In the 60s Jonker became the first woman to receive South Africa’s most renowned literature prize. Nevertheless, it was a statutory award, that was significantly controlled by the National Party. An attempt to tie her to the establishment, to catch her again? After the end of the Apartheid regime, during the first constitutional meeting of the newly elected South African Parliament, the Chairman of the ANC Party, Nelson Mandela, recited one of her most famous poems – ‘The Child’.

The different historical strands in the development of South Africa were bound with Jonker’s character in many different layers and respectively with those societal narratives attached to them. It can be observed how a national icon, a national monument, becomes created in the interplay between fact and fiction, in the respective identity-giving rituals and practices of the various political and cultural protagonists of South African society. The ongoing process of receipt, claim, politicisation as well as repoliticisation of Jonker in the cultural and political public of South Africa, opens this up and makes visible the permanent slippage between her ‘real’ and ‘true’ person and her symbolic construction as icon and – one might also say – her phantasm. In this context, the character of Jonker is not substantive, but functions as a gap, ‘Always there, where segments of text abruptly butt up against one another, sit gaps, that interrupt the expected regularity of the text’. The gaps appeal on the one hand to the reader, offering them the opportunity to climb into the text, on the other hand they themselves revoke every, clear, specified sense and allow the meaning to structurally develop during reading out of the constantly newly accumulating connections.

Meaning is always at risk; it is something unsure, porous, never fixed, never retained. According to the specific symbolic concept of the French philosophers, the linguistic significants do not attach any fixed significants (identities), much more they find themselves in an inconclusive process of differentiation and reciprocal displacement. Linguistic and textual meaning is created in the constantly transitional reference of single elements, symbolic processes constitutively inconclusive. In the free play of differences, meaning is constantly newly created, displaced and erased. Inside the symbolisation process, identities therefore develop in permanently new script, renewed script and transcript. Monuments, icons, but also narratives, serve as phantasms, as the imaginary, positive occlusion of this impossible closure.

In the video work, ‘The tape recorded surprise; Interview with I.J.’, Hendrikse presents two actresses to us in the form of a documentary. One of them, Nicola Hanekom, recently played the author Jonker in a play. The other, Grethe Fox, an older actress, knew Jonker when she was young, and always wanted to play her. Hendrikse worked with both for a week and carried out various interviews with them, usually concerning the roles and the acting. Subsequently he swapped the positions and let them respectively pretend to have not or not yet played Jonker. Both actresses had to work together on the role and attempt to close their respective gaps on both sides.

From the virulent details, biographical fragments and also literary references, a pattern is created in Jonker’s identity in which reality and fiction are opalescently and iridescently woven together: a sidestep, a change in the incidence of light, und suddenly everything seems to be completely different. The standpoint makes the picture, the character makes the story. Caught between being and not-being, she exhibits her form, in the aforementioned ‘Figure in the Carpet’, all the features and characteristics of this permanently elusive form and fiction: as the secret that sets history in motion; the gap.

Another work – ‘Letters as actors’ – presents a fictional conversation with a character, who is not fully defined and who one gets to know as J. The letters clearly show that Hendrikse and J. must have met, drunk a coffee together, but he can only vaguely remember and wonders whether he just wrote to someone similar to the intended recipient.

‘Hauntology of Ochre and Smoke’ resembles a séance in which the author, Jonker, is presented to us as ghost, effigy and illusion of herself in various media. In a video we see the close-up view of a male hand that is writing; one can observe how it tries to write in the handwriting of the author Jonker; different letters are constantly practiced anew. In another, text-based work we see instructions on how one can become ‘her’. The instructions are based on the directions of the actresses in the video work ‘The Tape Recorded Surprise’. The instructions are spread over three different piles of stencilled paper with different, primarily physical assignments and directional marks. Jonker’s ghost does not however return, due to an incomplete past, a past guilt, or failed mourning. “The living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”  It is about making it possible not to think about the ‘present’ as closed. The present is always delayed.

In ‘Hauntology of Ochre and Smoke’ the history of Ingrid Jonker is newly assembled, the pearls strung on the intersections between literary locations, real places, medial personifications and performative interpretations, that allow the fictive, real and symbolic figure of Ingrid Jonker to be revived like a spirit. By doing so, the title of the exhibition refers to her most famous work, the volume of poetry Ochre and Smoke. Hendrikse takes the thread, lays it out afresh and spins a net with which the most remarkable and ephemeral things and phenomena are caught: impressions, absences, affects, movements, gestures, mimetic returns.

The character of the writer is recalled with narrative and scenic devices. But the complete process of invocation makes symbolisation and identity themselves – in space and time – experiencable as the result of an inconclusive process of permanently new arrangements and of a continuing suspension (of meaning). In this way the figure of Jonker is renewed in the discursive-installative elements of Hendrikse, as a ‘character-sketch’ arranged as a fiction.

The last section of the exhibition is comprised of a multipart slide installation and in this work one comes next to the figure of Jonker. The slides show pictures of the interiors in which Jonker lived and/or about which she had written. Hendrikse took these pictures, following the tracks of the locations, together with two photographers in South Africa. Opposite them is a narrative created from the letters, fragments and records that the artist and the various participants in the exhibition and forthcoming book had sent during the whole working process. The character of Jonker becomes most concrete here, though the narrative act alters and forms the perspectives afresh through the text. As a reputedly real person, she is propagated in a fictitious script, made in a fictitious, spatial scenario. Through a variety of different perspectives and reconstructions, the figure of the author is newly woven and yields a changeable, iridescent, ephemeral and ungraspable form. In this shape and form a living monument arises in the form of an archive of affects, gestures and – shadows. A ‘delayed monument’. One whose identity (presence) seems to have the ability to be conceived as the always displaced and disseminated, necessarily delayed present. Still not or already no more.


  1. Fotis Jannidis, Figur und Person. Beitrag zu einer historischen Narratologie, (De Gruyter: Berlin 2004), p. 151-196