It started with a Facebook link; recommendation from a friend for something brilliant and (possibly) disturbing. This was by Mark Jenkins — an artist with a new book (The Urban Theater) highlighting creations from the last nine years. Students at art colleges may be particularly interested in this book.
According to the introduction, Mark “began his art career creating non-commissioned street installations in Rio de Janeiro in 2003”. He wasn’t seeking approval from the establishment or waiting to get an in to the typical exhibition space; rather he created interventions. He worked to provoke a response from the every day. Many of his characters, as he calls them, are in stages of distress with their surroundings. Their typicality is beseeched with anguish and misalignment with the world as we understand it.
Whether it’s transparent replicas of animals and children or life-like presentations of human beings at odds; his work breaks up the normal commerce of the day. There is one in particular of a person sleeping in a bed, shoes placed in their proper order, but the bed is in a parking spot. It is misplaced within our make-up.
And then there is the person checking to see what’s going on.
Before learning of his book I stumbled through Mr. Jenkins work site which features many of the same works as well as many others. When viewed together there seems to be a kind of narrative that is not so much about varying his approach and creating something new each time, but creating a sort of ubiquitous presence where these creations begin to take on a normalcy. They are always already in existence. Part of this is due to the mimicry of certain collections, but even those that do not resemble life as we know it, take on a quality that is not unique, but normal.
“Most of these character sculptures are left on the streets to have their own life cycle with the idea of turning the street into a stage…the reactions of passersby as part of this performance.”
Page 30 features two images of a rescuer saving one of Jenkins’ creations from the water. The work looks like a person drowning and it is easy to see why the rescuer intervenes. It’s a giant real-life play, not unlike what Charlie Kaufman tried to present with his film Synecdoche, NY.
The immediate reaction I had to his work is what does this say about us? I imagine that is probably not far from what Jenkins is thinking himself. His autobiographical narrative opening the book speaks of his “strongest memory of art as a child”. At the request of his teacher he created something that was then met with a giant red F leading to tears at home requiring comfort. His work is all about how distress informs our day to day lives by interrupting it.
And yet, as I alluded to earlier, there is something else: by normalizing the interventions through mass placement, he is legitimizing them and making intervention normal. The normal is abnormal. We live in a mass of discreet (and sometimes not so discreet) interventions. It would seem better to not pretend otherwise and yet we do; everyday. We spend our days trying to control the uncontrollable.
This is what I am left with after looking through his site and new book. Many of the images show people walking by or taking photos from a distance. Some do get close and try to see what is going on, but to many his work goes unnoticed.
The book should help change this.
It is beautifully designed and laid out to maintain the relationship his work has with the world by not inscribing a certain level of importance to one over the other. Encapsulating a series of works produced over the last decade that may have been out of reach for the majority of the world’s population it’s an opportunity to catch up. Stepping out of the box he has so elegantly manipulated Jenkins is now collected and encased.
But, being collected changes things. The pictures are no longer his momentary glimpses into the impact of his art and the world. They are now the world’s object. Printed books are essentially different than online presentations. They cannot be deleted or maintained so easily. They are now for coffee tables and bookshelves. His work is now an item for purchase rather than a dialogue amongst passersby.
On the streets he places his work in a position where its value is left up to us either in recognition or ignorance. It is already subsumed by culture and thus requests nothing of it. By remaining absent from the typical constructs that infer meaning he opened the doors for us to determine its meaning either as a group or on our own. The book’s layout is not trying to determine what is important about the material, but the act of binding between two covers does.
This is not a judgment call on the book, but merely a query running through my mind as I reflect upon my interactions with the material. The work holds power. The book sees to that. It is nothing if not inspiring and representative of a part, not a whole. It allows for Jenkins to see a little more light around his ideas and maintains a series of creations originating from a childhood trauma that continue to reflect something he gleamed from an otherwise discouraging event that many of us have encountered in our lives. But, as with all artists who reach a certain level of identity, this is a moment that changes everything.
(For further investigation check out Mark Jenkins: Go Figure! )