31 January 2023 The artist and filmmaker probes the slippery subjects of queerness and desire in his first latex-laden solo show at Edel Assanti, London.
I spot Jenkin van Zyl from the street outside Edel Assanti, the gallery in London housing his first major solo exhibition, Surrender. He is wearing a matador suit and dog collar, and is perched at the gallery window. Leading me inside, he beckons me through the gaping jaws of an inflatable rat’s head installed in the foyer, into the exhibition space beyond. It's two days before the show’s official opening, but a sleep-deprived van Zyl is dolled up, replete with silicone horns and the Kabuki-inspired makeup some might recognize from his ‘Extreme Beauty Routine’ video for Vogue in 2020. We had only met once before, in passing, at Ridley Road Project Space’s Meltdown exhibition, where he showed a drawing of a tusk-toothed pin-up model in a Playboy bikini cradling a trophy. The ghoulish artwork, For Your Safety (Everybody Loves a Winner) (2021), was an apt introduction to his seductively freakish world.
Van Zyl has been a fixture on East London’s queer scene for the past decade, associated with the halcyon days of VFD (formerly Vogue Fabrics), a nightclub and arts space in Dalston he frequented as both punter and exhibiting artist. In this milieu, he began working with fashion designer Charles Jeffrey on film campaigns, rocked jockstraps and Tudor garb to show openings, and, more recently, posed as a leathered-up centaur for nightlife photographer Roxy Lee. Beyond the subcultural scene, van Zyl garnered special attention at Hayward Gallery’s landmark 2019 exhibition Kiss My Genders for his dystopic rendering of balloon fetishists in the film Looners (2019). Whatever your entry point to the filmmaker, set designer and drag artist, his work is not easily forgotten.
Jenkin van Zyl: Surrender, installation view, Edel Assanti, London, 2023.
Surrender spotlights van Zyl’s newfound obsession with Japanese ‘love hotels’, which couples can book for just a few hours at a time. ‘A lot of the most amazing ones in Japan have these extraordinary, Disneyland-style decors,’ van Zyl says as we cross from the rat’s mouth into a labyrinth of pneumatic tubes that fill the gallery space. ‘[There are interiors with] carousel horses that can be used as fuck benches […] or princess bedrooms with a throne that might turn into a spanking chair.’
Van Zyl takes inspiration from a multitude of sources, but none has been as pivotal as the Bishopsgate Institute’s UK Leather and Fetish Archive, a space which fascinates the artist – particularly the Mackintosh Collection, assembled since the 1940s, which consists of 26 scrapbooks and dozens of catalogues of women wearing rubber, latex, and rainwear. Returning to Surrender, I ask about the significance of the rat head and the twisting pipework. ‘There’s this weird thing called a rat king,’ he says, detailing a rare phenomenon where a group of rodents find their tails tangled or stuck together. ‘It’s an idea of a networked body or a collective organism.’
He points to the back window, which has been painted over, except for one small circular spot. ‘That’s the rat’s arsehole.’ As he sees it, we are inside the rat, a grotesque predicament characteristic of van Zyl’s work: his last show took its name, Vore (2022), from the fetish of being eaten alive. The pipework meanwhile recalls the tubes used in early 20th-century office buildings to pass messages between floors, and which in some love hotels serve to transport keys, bills or toothbrushes.
We reach a set of old hotel beds and Soviet-era medical boxes where the film, Surrender (2023), plays. Featuring an all-queer cast of go-go dancers, voguers and theatre performers, the film takes cues from US dance marathons, a cultural phenomenon born during the Great Depression. We follow the protagonist Grace, who is played by van Zyl’s best friend and artistic collaborator Alex Margo Arden, in an unrelenting ballroom tournament she never wins. ‘I’m interested in spaces that slip between paradise and hellscape,’ explains van Zyl. ‘In this film, the queer dance floor is a space for world building but also a microcosm of the problems you might encounter in the real world.’
Such problems, for van Zyl, include the masculinist undertones that dominate some queer clubs, and the ways that they demand a toxic form of consumerist hedonism. In Surrender, this manifests in exhausted thrusting, 40-minute power naps and the brain-jilting ding of an iPhone alarm as Grace and the other contestants return to the polished wooden floor over and over. Van Zyl hopes to ‘problematise transgression or the idea of community, which are often quite whitewashed and instrumentalised terms.’
Perhaps, as critic and frieze contributor James Lawrence Slattery understood van Zyl’s Looners (2019), the show is about desire ‘as a site of lack', a state of feeling oneself to be incomplete without something and striving to acquire it as compensation. This lack might mean a failure to signify as man or woman, as the masked contestants in Surrender do, thereby queering capitalism’s promise that a hardened, macho-hedonism will sate our desires and suture our identities. Grace is effectively stuck in a hamster wheel and would be better off embracing an incomplete identity beyond binaries and club-space mores; settling for failure over competition. For Slattery, it’s this acceptance of the inherent uncertainty of our identities and instability of our genders that will free us.
Whether van Zyl’s work acts as a salve for capitalist machismo remains to be seen, but the artist is self-reflective. ‘I’m quite perturbed by making queer art — this idea of exploring multiple ways to reconstruct your identity — while the world is in flames. That’s navel gazing,’ he says. ‘I'm trying to figure out where I sit on that at the minute.’ His willingness to grapple with the slippery questions of queerness through the rubric of capital and patriarchy feels optimistic. Ultimately, van Zyl is asking us to surrender to the rat king; to embrace multiplicity and reject a world where self-absorbed ravers show off their stamina and form, because – as he plainly states – ‘things get done when people come together, right?’