Focusing on sculptural installations and using the street as a stage, Mark Jenkins explores the way people interface with their city. He is interested in the reactions of people and considered his installations as much a social experiment as an art project. Mark studied geology in college and collaborated with Greenpeace in the past. His dark but poetic figures narrate us about the time we are living in and bring up the social awareness to such topics, as the removal of nature in the cities. Collaborating with Demna Gvasalia, Jenkins finds similar visual proposals between both of them, highlighting irony as a centrepiece.
People often try to interact with your street installations and accidentally become the participants of this ‘social experiment’. What is it like for you to see people interacting with your sculptures?
It's like an out-of-body experience since they're made from myself and wear my same clothes. I installed the first piece I did back in 2003 in a dumpster, and when the garbage truck came and took it away, it really felt like a life-sized voodoo doll. That's what got me hooked. Since then I've seen them hugged, set on fire, rescued, etc. Will make an interesting autobiography if I'm retired or jailed.
Your recent collaboration with Balenciaga felt so harmonious between both you and the label. Can you tell us more about it?
Demna came up with the idea of doing this project and for me it was really interesting because it takes the way people experience clothes on a different tangent. I mean it replaces the mannequin, but since it seems to be real, it also replaces the model – it's kind of a hybridization. On the other side, I like using non-traditional spaces open to the public.
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Your point of view seems similar to Demna’s. How important is irony within your work?
I agree, it has the same feeling we're exploring but using different mediums, which is why a collaboration like this is working so well. But irony, this is the centrepiece. It's so multifaceted with humour, the absurd, but still with a poetic narrative – and the palette and moods are darker. I've learned depressed states aren't always black or grey, they can also be a dark purple or the colour of broken glass. So there is irony here because it changes or shifts the perspective in looking at things, and it's funny.
I like that you identify depressed states with colours. Is it ok to be depressed?
Melancholy is a sort of texture but unlike happiness it can become more of a constant state. I'd probably diagnose my figures with dysthymia but I wouldn't jack them up on SSRI's (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, antidepressant drugs). But I think humans have always had a good reason to be depressed given our circumstances, and it's just our inherent stability that allows us to cope with it, albeit sometimes that solution may be to live in a fantasy world – like me or people that believe in religion. That said hyper-melancholy could transition to clinical depression, which is not so good because you lose other textures like happiness and you become incapacitated. And in my work there is some degree of humour that saves it from this.
I personally find the suicidal figures the most appealing ones. They seem dark but also poetic. Was there a particular message behind it?
I'd say not messages but stories. The one figure floating in the river with the balloons coming out its back is a death to me, but with these helium balloons attempting to save him. These balloons are like friends who also try to help but get trapped. The other hoodie figure ready to swan dive off a ledge in Dublin was like Death aka the Reaper committing suicide. Death of death is -1 x (-1) = 1 = birth.
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Well said. I also feel that your figures tell us about the time we are in. It’s almost like a sarcastic comment on our lives.
It pokes fun at the city, the removal of nature – some of these streets with trees that live in these little squares of soil. But we forget that under this there are roots and sewers and below them there is more soil, and subways, and Internet cables, and fossils, and ancient buried civilizations, and then magma and stuff. I studied geology in college; learning about the Earth is a good foundation to understand people and that time is an axis and our point on it is a pinprick. Unfortunately, the Earth is like a balloon that can be popped, or a hot liquid ball inside of a shell inside of a balloon, and cows and ocean are on top of it.
Some of your installations give a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Is it intentional? Is there any hope?
The main problem with the universe is that these spheres are too spread out. Think if your closest friend was as far away as the Moon. From this perspective we are quite lucky; we have such a wonderful circumstance compared to living on Mars. This for me would be hopelessness and despair and also I have no idea why people talk about needing to colonize it instead of focusing on repairing the Earth, which could include shock therapy to political leaders who want to abolish the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
Speaking of EPA. In 2008 you collaborated with Greenpeace, creating realistic figures appearing to be homeless people but with plush polar bear heads. Can you tell us more about this project?
I came up with this idea to compare polar bears to homeless people and my friend had the idea to approach Greenpeace to do it, and they really went for it. It had a good social impact – messy. Some of the homeless people didn't like being compared to animals and removed a couple. The others were removed by the police and two were destroyed by guys in blast suits. So it was this absurdist extinction of polar bears that was the key point. It was covered by a lot of local media; it shut down streets, subways, even a school so kids got out early – straight out of a Vonnegut novel when a fake man in a polar bear suit is classified as a suspicious package by the government and the circus that ensues.
“Melancholy is a sort of texture but unlike happiness it can become more of a constant state.”
You’ve received a lot of social critique for your work in general and this Greenpeace project particularly.
A lot of people think I set up the pieces with the intention of alarming people or activating a sort of body response as if police were white blood cells. But if anything, I think the police and these people are kind of an autoimmune disease. And this isn't a movie. If it was, I would sell popcorn on the streets.
Through your art you communicate with people on a psychological level. Is there anything new you learned about us?
More with social psychology, I’d say. And I’ve learned about the way people interface with their city. The way crowds form around these art objects, how conventional reality bends, how this can escalate. About people yes, but also about dogs, how they are disturbed and will lunge on the leash and bark at them. But they are also humanized.
I like that you used the word ‘humanized’. It feels so accurate to your work. All these soulless figures somehow lead us towards the process of humanization.
I agree. Civilization strips the nature out of the Earth, which is our soul. You can see it clearly from above the way we cut up the earth into polygons, and in the night the entire city lights. We've turned the Earth into a sort of strange Christmas bulb. In years to come this bulb will become more and more blinged out until if falls off the tree like Humpty Dumpty, and we know the ending to that story.
What is your goal as an artist?
Remaining goalless. I don't think there is anything particularly worthwhile about goals. Wandering curiously, it can be up a mountain or looking under rocks for salamanders. And helping things like rescuing a salamander or picking up trash in nature, although in the latter case it's transported to some big heap of trash miles away that will use gasoline to get there.
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