Mark Jenkins

Social Experiments in Sticky Tape

It was in February this year that the guys at the Ruttkowski 68 gallery in Cologne contacted us about doing a print in conjunction with their upcoming exhibition “Terrible Horrible” by Washington D.C. based-artist Mark Jenkins. The exhibition is their second with Jenkins and features exclusively his new works. The DRAW A LINE editions that came about from this collaboration are translated images based on two of his life-like sculptures. The following interview has been shared generously from Wertical Magazine.

Mark Jenkins “Terrible Horrible” @ Ruttkowski 68, Cologne. April 4 – May 18.

Looking back to the start of his career, American street artist Mark Jenkins puts it all down to luck. He was messing around with packaging tape when he accidentally discovered its potential as a sculpting material. His first life-sized figure made from tape was installed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. That is now more than ten years ago. Today, Jenkins’ tape sculptures appear in cities all over the world. While the 43-year-old still makes his human figures out of packaging tape, he now dresses them in clothes as well, giving the sculptures a more hyper-realistic look.

Jenkins, who studied geography, sees his work not just as art, but also as a social experiment. Once his figures are installed on the streets, they develop an independent existence that he then monitors with interest. The figures push our sense of irony and humor up another level; more than just figures, they question everything around them – accepted realities, norms and conventions. “If the city was a body, my works were like herpes,” said Jenkins. “The body attacks itself.”

We met up with Jenkins and discussed everything from his early work to his latest sculptures.

Mark Jenkins

Graffiti artists also work in public. Did you ever do graffiti?

No, but I certainly grew up around the graffiti culture as I used to play in a band mainly doing hip hop music. I think it is the same motivation that drives me and graffiti writers – the illegal.

So when you started doing your figures, it was a natural consequence that you installed them in the streets without permission?

Definitely. The idea of finding a gallery to do an installation didn't feel right to me. I have the whole city right in front of my house. Why would I try to find a small space instead of using the big?

Nowadays, you show your artworks at galleries. Does that feel contradictory?

I always say the characters are 'street smart', but they can also be inside. When we do a gallery exhibition and get the sculptures indoors, we are not simply doing this by bringing them inside, but by domesticating them. There is a concept to all my figures, which is humor. As long as this is kept up, the figures succeed, no matter where. Of course, there are a lot of street artists who easily re-paste their artworks from the streets into a frame for their gallery shows and their sales, but I think you can't really do that.

Because it lacks authenticity?

Exactly. This is also why I did one artwork with a foot kicking through a frame.

“There is a concept to all my figures, which is humor. As long as this is kept up, the figures succeed, no matter where.”
Mark Jenkins

Which really and truly resembles the process of your work – from outside to the inside without ignoring the origin. You said you are working according to the concept of humor. Are you generally working conceptually or do ideas arise during the process of making your figures?

We actually have to decide all details beforehand as the figures are casts of real persons, who have to stay in a certain position for hours.

So you are working with real models?

Yes, to ensure the hyper-real look.

But not for your baby figures.

No. For this we use puppets.

You have to be very attentive to be able to form figures that look so real. Would you describe yourself as a profiler?

Yes. My work is kind of a social experiment.

So you avoid styling yourself as an artist?

Oh no, I surely describe myself as an artist as it is the easiest way to say what I am doing. But I have to admit, at the beginning I didn't feel comfortable with the term because I studied science and I like the idea of social experiments. The term artist is such a loaded word nowadays.

As everybody can easily style himself an artist?

Yes, and it is so empty at the same time. So I actually prefer to style myself as a street artist.

A term which is also quite empty.

Yes, it is overused too. But it still describes best what I am doing. It was surely the same when they coined minimalism. The artists didn't label themselves. Somebody who wrote about it did it. This is also why so many artists are classed among a certain style although they are not part of this class at all.

Mark Jenkins - Word of God
"Word of God" limited edition for DRAW A LINE
Mark Jenkins

That's true, much is read into art by third parties; some analyses are certainly wrong, others are right. Your figures often look melancholic. Is that what they’re meant to express?

Yes, they are put in an abnormal position; they seem to be depressed, alone, sometimes even marginalized. And yes, it is exactly this that gives them a certain charisma. The figures evoke empathy. You feel with them.

Are they meant to criticize?

Our society?

Yes. Your figures seem to test our awareness and civil courage.

That's true. I did a project in Sweden together with another artist. We made a girl that we installed into a corner. She was facing the wall, some few meters next to her was her teddy bear standing. Both expressed a sense of being totally lost. We wanted to see who would stop and who would not stop.

Is this your general research question?

Yes, it is definitely interesting to observe what happens with the figures out there. The project in Sweden was actually to call attention to a girl who was kidnapped a few weeks before and finally found murdered. We put the figure of the girl out there to show what has happened and to see if it could happen again. But young people didn't stop, old people didn't stop, it was only the mothers who might have a child of the same age who went to the figure and started to talk to her.

Is it the most interesting part of your work to see people's reactions?

Sometimes. I made a sculpture covered in trash – you can hardly recognize there is a man underneath; there is only one sock sticking out. Nobody noticed it! But one guy passed by who was walking his dog – a big German Shepherd – and the dog recognized that there was something wrong. It lunged and dragged the leash. I don’t know what senses were intrigued as the figures don't have any smell, but this is something I find interesting: the dog somehow picked up that there was something incorrect.

Do you observe such situations yourself or do you install cameras to observe the reactions from a distance?

It depends on how easy it is. When we install a figure on the street, we usually do it very quickly. We literally drop it, walk around the block, take our jackets off, squash them into our backpacks and come back as somebody else. But still, I don't like to stay too long. It is like sticking your own finger into the chemistry. I don't want to contaminate the experiment.

Mark Jenkins
“We leave the figures out there, literally giving them their own lives... It wouldn't be street art if we take it back.”

But nobody would know that you are the mastermind.

True, but as I am part of it, I am automatically behaving differently. Of course, I did it a lot, but it is not under the microscope any more. The figures create their own lives.

How do you actually get the figures back from the streets without interacting?

That's the whole point of it – we don't get them back. We leave the figures out there, literally giving them their own lives. It is again about the idea of the stage – the performance goes on: sometimes the police come, another time the bomb squad defuses, or someone just takes the figure back to their own flat. It would be against our philosophy to take the figures back again. It wouldn't be street art if we take it back.

Do you know somebody who owns a figure of yours that was taken from the streets?

I have heard some stories. A fire department once had to remove a figure and they let me know that they kept it and let it sit on the truck seat.

“A fire department once had to remove a figure and they let me know that they kept it and let it sit on the truck seat.”
Mark Jenkins - DRAW A LINE Editon
Limited edition for DRAW A LINE

What about the clothes that your figures wear. Do you have one certain shop where you buy them?

In the beginning we used my own clothes as it was also my own body. But then we started making so many figures it was hard to keep up with the amount. So we went to some second hand shops to ensure that the clothes look worn. The most important thing is that they fit the model.

The clothes that your figures wear certainly play a big role.

Yes, they do. If they are too nice and new, they don't transport authenticity.

As you said yourself, you do your artworks anonymously. How did you become recognized then, especially within the art world?

It was in the end of 2006 when Banksy emailed me asking if I would like to be part of a group show. From there on it started rolling, thanks to Banksy. Before, I was an artist doing some things in Washington D.C. and suddenly I emerged as an artist who was present at all different spots.

Interview by Wertical