Ten Meets Jenkin van Zyl, The London-Based Artist With a Different Sort of Paint Stroke
Sitting in his studio in the bowels of London’s Royal Academy, the artist Jenkin van Zyl is going over the details of his day’s outfit. Components include pointed piggy ears, a black matador hat, a black tabard, a black cloak, some black Adidas trackies and some imposing heels (yes, also black), plus a “little cyber-dog tail” poking out of the back, and some light goth-meets-Kabuki make- up, accessorised by multiple earrings and a nose ring. “I’m kind of lazily dressed at the minute, because I’ve got to finish packing up my studio,” he says, almost apologetically. Wait – this is “workwear”? “Yeah,” he says with a smile. “This is my lazy look!”
Welcome to the world of Jenkin van Zyl, who, against all expectations, was somehow born and bred in Surrey, starting 26 years ago. It is hard, though, to see any trace of Britain’s slickest, snooziest county in his appearance or, indeed, his work – if anything, it’s a wild and gleeful two-fingers-up to it. Van Zyl is still a student, completing the third year of a postgraduate degree in art at the Royal Academy (RA), but he has already acquired a strong professional buzz. Last year, his film Looners (2019) was the highlight of the Hayward Gallery’s show Kiss My Genders; this spring, at the prestigious Glasgow International, he will present another art movie, In Vitro (2020). It is hard to sum up van Zyl’s mini-films, but you could perhaps say that they’re inspired by horror and sci-fi and gore, “queer reimaginings” of old movies set on bleak, abandoned movie sets. Out of the guts of something old, he recreates something quite new, and quite scary, which seems particularly suited to what he blithely calls “the current hellscape that we’re in”.
And that’s literally the guts, it turns out. The new piece is set in a “bunker city made out of buried aircrafts”, he says; the exterior shots are going to be done “in this Viking re-enactment village in Iceland”. As for the action itself, “there is a band of characters who are in a perpetual state of having to hollow each other out and grow these stunt doubles out of their stomachs, made of cakes of their own likenesses”. It is, in part, a commentary on how modern capitalism encourages us to cannibalise our own selves, but hold on, wait a minute – cakes? Yes, cakes: van Zyl promptly shows me, on his computer, images of perfectly made grotesque demon heads, which were baked and decorated by a friend of his mum’s. To be clear, there is something disarmingly sweet about van Zyl, regardless of the outer shell. “All of this is edible,” he says proudly of the demons’ faces, “including the hair and teeth.”
Jenkin van Zyl, Loon, 2019
Van Zyl’s studio isn’t the airy, light space you might imagine. More of a bunker-meets-broom cupboard, it’s just one in a labyrinth of studios between the RA’s main showrooms. They really are the bowels – or as van Zyl puts it, “the arsehole of the building”, where the people who make “messy” stuff are put. Students are supposed to rotate around, but van Zyl, unsurprisingly, has been here the whole three years. Despite him claiming to be in the middle of a clear-out, it is still packed with CPR mannequin dummies, ping-pong balls, camouflage netting, a whole rack of fashions, including some heavy-looking silicone boobs, and an entire toilet cubicle unrooted from an airplane. This just arrived this week, apparently. “I’ve got this guy who strips aircrafts out who keeps dumping loads of free interiors here,” van Zyl says. “He’s sussed out that I’ll take anything.”
Out of all this chaos, though, van Zyl does channel something very effective. The aesthetic and the art may draw on dozens of different elements (Leigh Bowery, the Ballets Russes, the film directors Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold), but the final result is already markedly, bracingly van Zyl. Take Looners, which again defies easy categorisation. Filmed on former Game of Thrones sets in the dramatic Atlas Mountains, the movie is, says van Zyl, “a direct reinterpretation of the violence put upon queer people”.Which in practice is expressed as the tension between (deep breath) “a band of caretaker avatars that are sort of bald, macho, silicone-masked characters, and then this other collection of latex inflatable characters that are sort of kept hostage there”, he explains. “There are these cycles of petrol hazing and violence, that sort of mirror the hedonism and death drive that’s central to macho queer culture.” Have you got the idea yet? We’re a long way from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Jenkin van Zyl, In Vitro, 2020 – Production still
Indeed van Zyl doesn’t do drag at all, although some of his looks certainly blur gender norms, and the make-up (especially on his Insta) is often done to Tudor-meets-gothic perfection. It’s just one misconception about him that he blithely shrugs off. Everything about van Zyl makes you look again. For instance, this actually is his name, the product of two South African parents who moved to London in the early 1990s and stayed; in South Africa, their son says, van Zyl (pronounced van Tseyll) is as common as Smith. Jenkin, meanwhile, was chosen at random from a name book. Van Zyl, an only child, grew up by a forest, which meant that most of his games of imagination were “all very forest-sprite-based”, he says with a smile. “I was obsessed with undergrowths and fort- building.” Other than that, though, his childhood was “totally mundane, like that area is”. His general analysis of life before 18 is “a total sludge”. However, his imagination was well established, and he was already fascinated with costume; every Halloween, he would get his mother to help get his outfit of “Day-Glo witch” ready. “I was always definitely read as ‘other’ or ‘freak’ at school,” he admits.
All of this changed when he moved to London, a week after turning 18. When he arrived, he got an unusual baptism of fire. “I turned up at student halls on the first day, and when I walked into the kitchen, the girl who lived in the room next to mine was sitting, squatting, with her panties pulled down, with a dummy in her mouth, pouring mushy peas over her vag,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh! I’ve arrived at art school.’”
Said girl became a partner in crime until, perhaps unsurprisingly, she ended up getting institutionalised (she had, among other things, objectophilia – the condition where you fall in love with objects; a passion for the Hammersmith flyover had run her ragged). Looking back, van Zyl can’t quite call her a muse, but let’s just say she helped him start as he meant to go on. Going to queer nights at venues such as East Bloc or Vogue Fabrics, he found kindred spirits – and actually a lot of the people he still works with now. (Perhaps now is as a good a time as any to say that van Zyl is joyfully nonchalant about pronouns and gender; “he” is fine, but broadly, “it’s all tbc!”) He remains fond of the scene, if bemused by the limits of east London’s venues. “I remember being like, ‘Is this really the utopian, transgressive club space that I moved here for? And it’s all these stinking, sticky corridors.’” He prefers a good warehouse rave now.
Jenkin van Zyl, In Vitro, 2020 – Production still
The potency of queer London nightlife, its “playfulness and mischievousness” on one side, and its “dangerous, careless oblivion” on the other, pulsates through van Zyl’s work. He does differentiate between his fashions and his films, in that the former is about presenting a fixed, dramatic self, whereas the latter are often about dissolving the self, pulling things gleefully apart, embracing a void. Neither form of expression, though, is there to be cute or cosy. “It’s not expected to make work that’s fractious or critical,” he says. “The fantasy reading of my work is, ‘Woohoo! The girls are out!’” He chuckles as he says it, but the point stands. Van Zyl is very happy to be part of a wave
of progress, in terms of diversity and acceptance, but at the same time, his work and his presence look to remind us there’s still a way to go. Not everything about queer culture today is rainbow-hued and huggy.
“I have felt a marked rise in harassment or violence in London over the time that I’ve lived here, and all my friends have said the same thing,” he says. “It does feel like a general slide into quite an unsafe thing. But it’s important to be present and to be visible, as a weirdo or whatever.” It really doesn’t sound pleasant, though. “If I go out wearing a jockstrap, it’s amazing the invitation that seems to give people,” he says. “I’ve had people spitting on their fingers and doing full insertion. Really awful stuff.” However, he says it barely registers now. He just puts on his noise-cancelling headphones and ploughs on. He says he generally finds it easy to disassociate from any abuse from outside. “And I’m not saying that as an avoidance thing,” he promises. “I mean, it’s so routine.”
Jenkin van Zyl, Looners, 2019 – Still
You might be wondering what van Zyl’s parents – his mother a dentist, father an engineer – make of their only son. In fact it turns out they are vital to the operation: his mother has often assisted with filming, while his dad has helped him build installations and sets. There was, he says, a trickier time, when his father would insist that young Jenkin would go to rugby every Sunday until he was 16. “I was in the F team,” he says, cringing. “One of those dribbling nerds!” The acceptance has come in degrees: they were always fine with work, less so, at first, with his private life or indeed his identity. But when they saw that, in London, van Zyl had found his people, they eased up. “They could see that I wasn’t an island by myself,” he says now, “that there was this whole group of people out there, plotting, who were way more psychotic and bizarre and hysterical!” So they were just worried you’d be on your own? “Yeah. Or that I’d be unloved.” But who couldn’t love van Zyl? As soon as you enter his world, with him wagging that cute little cyber-dog tail, you see you have no other choice.
All images courtesy of Jenkin van Zyl. Taken from Issue 51 of 10 Men – GENTLE, SENSUAL, FANTASY – on newsstands now.