Jenkin van Zyl on his death-defying art: ‘Setting myself on fire was idiotic. But the shot is amazing’

He makes films filled with gore, monsters and bizarre fetishes and looks like Mr Tumnus at a techno club. Could this prosthetics-wearing, jockstrap-clad raver be the UK’s most exciting new artist?

Jenkin van Zyl’s art features many of the elements of a good party – balloons, cake, inflatables, dancing. But any likeness to a toddler’s birthday stops there. His oeuvre is distinctly NSFW (not safe for work). The cast members of his movies are outfitted in grotesque monster masks and strappy fetish garb. Fake blood flows abundantly. His films are jittery and claustrophobic, sticky with yearning, pulsing with menace.

“I’m interested in extremes,” he tells me. “Art becomes a really good excuse for doing things that are bad or deviant, or experimental.”

I first encountered Van Zyl’s work at the Kiss My Genders show at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2019. His five-screen film Looners was installed in a rickety wooden fortress filled with prop swords and axes. On screen, a rabble in creepy latex masks and extravagant inflatable costumes engaged in gross and mysterious activities in a desert palace. Shot when Van Zyl was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Looners felt like illicit footage of forbidden rites: something tribal was taking place, though it was unclear what.

Inside the love hotel … the Surrender installation.
Inside the love hotel … the Surrender installation. Photograph: Will Amlot/Courtesy the artist and Edel Assanti

I meet Van Zyl, now 29, on the first installation day of a show at London’s Edel Assanti. The gallery is piled with mattresses and wall panels, to be transformed into a “love hotel” from which to watch his new film Surrender. It’s his first work to use an official location: the previous three were filmed on old movie sets while cast and crew dodged dogs and security guards. His first film, Fort Bravo, was shot in Spain on spaghetti western film sets: “It was just me, a friend, and a flip cam, with a rucksack of jockstraps in the desert,” he says.

Filming on a micro budget has led to formal inventiveness. Memorable shots in Looners were shot inside huge weather balloons, as though in utero with the characters. Van Zyl leaves artifice evident. A pair of grappling hands, dripping in gore, are shown having fake blood applied from a bottle. The thick borders of latex masks are left exposed, ditto the pink silicon edges of fake breastplates. Van Zyl achieved certain spectacular shots because he and his cast of close friends were willing to put themselves on the line.

He has been through fire and ice for his art. For Fort Bravo, Van Zyl “bought flame paste from Flints theatrical chandlers – I thought I’d discovered this magic special effect. I covered myself in the flame paste and set myself on fire in my flat. It is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever done: the latex mask was melting into my leather jacket.” Was it worth it? Absolutely. “The shot’s amazing, it looks like I’m Icarus, with flame wings.”

This desire to push his body to the limits led to Van Zyl performing as a body double outdoors in Iceland for Machines of Love (2020/21). Dressed in a latex mask, crop top and high-heeled platform boots, the character emerges from a subterranean game zone into the pristine whiteness of a sub-zero spring, then clambers up an exposed slope through deep snow before lying down at the top. “I got totally lost in a bewildering snowstorm,” recalls Van Zyl. A friend operating the drone was meant to guide him back down the mountain. By the time they retrieved him “my whole mask had filled with thick snot and vomit – I had gone into hypothermic shock”.

Extreme experiences and the quest for personal freedom inform the new work Surrender. The central character Grace – played by artist Alex Margo Arden – is a rat-faced woman summoned to a love hotel for a week of bizarre trials centred on a dance marathon. Shot with a cast that includes voguers and go-go dancers, it explores the dancefloor as a site of rules as well as liberation. “I’m interested in the politics of nightlife spaces – of the loss of self within a crowd or group – but also, how they become a microcosm of issues outside the nightclub: of misogyny or transphobia or racism or living under capitalism.” Surrender uses “this idea of the queer nightclub or the dancefloor to examine other structures of control.”

Clubs were a place of escape for Van Zyl growing up. His parents moved from South Africa to Surrey (“a very constricting Tory belt of the UK”) shortly before he was born. With the capital less than an hour away, “from a young age I’d escape to London, and sleep in stations to get the first train back home”, he says.

Signature style … Van Zyl at Surrender.
Signature style … Van Zyl at Surrender. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The yearning to find your people, find your tribe, is a driving interest. Many of the props and costumes in Van Zyl’s work have associations for specific subgroups. The silver rat-tailed cryosuits used in Surrender were manufactured by a US company specialising in extreme weather clothing and camping gear popular with survivalists. The anonymous face masks used in Looners are favoured “in specific fetish communities, where they get off on being anonymous in public. It’s a masking fetish: they’d go and order a pizza from a drive-through, and film themselves doing it.” The looners of the film’s title are balloon fetishists, who share the “fantasy of being inflated beyond your body’s quite modest capabilities, to extreme tautness until you explode … or not.”

Van Zyl himself appeared in a magnificent balloon costume – an outsized muscle suit – for a video on extreme beauty routines shot for Vogue magazine. In the video he described going about his everyday life, even feeding ducks in the local park, in outrageous attire. On the London art scene his signature style is Mr Tumnus does Berghain – prosthetic horns and ears, heavy facial piercings and clothing plundered from the Shakespearean stage. He and fellow artist Alex Margo Arden are aficionados of auctions and costume sales. “When the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon did their big costume clear out, we queued for 30 hours in the rain, in a tent, outside,” he says. “By the time we got in we were rabid, pushing over rails. We have a rule where she gets the peachy, silky negligee stuff, and I get any of the armour, then anything in the middle, we have to fight over.”

By his standards, he is dressed down for our interview today, though his suede doublet with slashed and laced sleeves would not look out of place at the Globe. Pointed metal ear prostheses add to the puckish effect. He tells me he used to love dressing up: Halloween, Christmas, birthday parties or any event that called for creative use of a bin bag or old cardboard. “That just got out of hand as I got older.”

Does he see himself as an artwork, his life as a performance, I wonder? For the first time he looks uneasy. “So much of my energy is put into the work that this stuff just feels incidental. It’s a space of pleasure and remodelling of the self,” he says, carefully. “Maybe it’s a personal hang-up, but I get frustrated when that’s seen as the most exciting or beautiful part of the work. The space of identity within the work is more interesting to me than my personal presentation.”

One of six preserved cakes for Six Scintillating Sinners (In Vitro), 2021, at The Horror Show! at Somerset House, London.
One of six preserved cakes for Six Scintillating Sinners (In Vitro), 2021, at The Horror Show! at Somerset House, London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Behind the devilish styling, Van Zyl is quick-witted and endearing. He’s close to his parents (“both really amazing”) who lend a hand building sets and managing costumes. In one memorable sequence in Machines of Love, the characters become pregnant and their bellies take the form of their own grotesque monster-masked faces – these belly-faces turn out to be made of artfully iced cake, which is duly ripped into and mangled. The cake was made by a friend of Van Zyl’s mum – Magda Viljoen – who has produced exotically decorated gateaux for his last three films and is now a regular crew member. “She’s really good with performers, very sweet,” he says. On Surrender she worked in costume maintenance: “she forbade me from making anything when she’s not on set now”.

While Van Zyl acknowledges influences within the art world (Mika Rottenberg and Ryan Trecartin are the most evident) his cues come, overwhelmingly, from cinema. As a child, he adored the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer and cites his exaggerated, itch-inducing soundscapes as an influence. Other formative favourites include John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar – “my king when I was growing up”. Developing Surrender, he looked to Gaspar Noé’s 2018 film Climax, as well as Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). Would he ever depart the art world to direct a feature himself? “I would love to.”

If there’s one overarching theme to his work it is the power of a community – brought together either by choice or circumstance. A club scene is one such tribe. So too is a film crew. “I’m not particularly optimistic but I think the idea of coming together, in a space, as a group, is still really important,” says Van Zyl, before we part. “Art and film-making, for me, are a means of imagining, if not a better world, then a different world – and that being liberating in itself.”

• This article was amended on 24 January 2023. Van Zyl and his friend waited for 30 hours to get into the RSC’s costume clearout, not 13 as an earlier version said.

Jenkin van Zyl’s Surrender is at Edel Assanti, London, until 4 March


Hettie Judah

The GuardianTramp

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