MARK JENKINS: The drama of being human

THEFINEPRINT interviewed MARK JENKINS, asking him about art’s imitation of life and the experience of urban strangeness.

Text/Interview GRETA RAINBOW

In an attempt to understand humanity, creatives propose and fashion what we are. But sometimes it is what we fail to see that exemplifies our nature. Artist Mark Jenkins’ street installations are critical of our blindness. We push the important things, the complex things, the things we don’t understand, to the background layer. At first, his packing tape sculptures of human bodies seem to add something strange to our streets and city squares. But the real absurdity is the works’ mimicry of us. Their positions could be our positions; their spaces, our spaces—shocked with realism, we becomes surreal objects ourselves.

The installation career of the American artist began with experimentation. In 2003, he was perfecting a packing tape mold of his own torso while living in Rio De Janeiro. In the city, he witnessed aggressive, pervasive poverty, one of the most visceral examples being the children who live on the street. Jenkins noticed, and he understood that his perception is a rarity. That year, he birthed a single tape figure that stood in a Rio landfill to visually call out child homelessness and bring it to our foreground.

Hyperrealism and public setting combine to make the uncanny. The sculptures are tape molds of real human bodies, usually Jenkins’. Many of them wear his clothes and shoes, and wigs of human hair. They sleep under a sheet in a parallel-parked four-poster bed. They float face-down in a canal, rainbow balloons tied to their torso like the stuff of a jester’s funeral pyre. They sit against a telephone pole reading the news, covered in town newspaper pages themself. They dive into a fountain in Bordeaux, sneakers to the sky. Most often erected as singular figures, they are melancholy outsiders jutting out from the landscape of the city.


As a testament to the lifelike quality of the trompe-l’œils, the local police force are return actors on Jenkins’ ‘urban theatre’ stage. Minutes after the artist and his assistants finished positioning a clothed, life-size tape woman relaxing atop a billboard in a North Carolina town, the police received a call from a concerned passerby.

Urbanites pride themselves on their impervious nature. Nothing shocks those who make their daily commute on the metro.

One is more tenacious after renting an apartment that was too affordable to be liveable. Jenkins startles these unshockable creatures, prying out the blink, eye rub and reexamination of the human experience.

I asked Mark Jenkins about the people who turn the corner and encounter one of his installations—the ‘spectators’ of his work, I suggested. He wouldn’t use this term. “[I would] instead refer to people as ingredients that you can cook in a cake,” Jenkins wrote. Other ingredients include pigeons, stop lights, litter and wind. “I guess the cake could also be called a ‘spectacle’ but then let’s just call it a ‘Spectacular Cake.’”

A spectator suggests, and even depends upon, an ocular experience. As Jenkins indicates, the role that sidewalk occupants possess transgresses an ability to see to instead emphasize their ability to be. The piece, the dramatic work of every iteration, is the relationship between humans and Jenkins’ non-human illusions. “[The figures] are portraits in the purest sense,” Jenkins told me. Portraits of us, we coexist with our stand-ins. If all the world’s a stage, as they stand with their heads in walls or suspended metres above their body, they are the stuntmen for the acts we cannot perform. But as protagonists of the human experience, it will be our dialogue that lifts the curtain on reality as unquestioned.


The experience of the city is a certain type of stage, one where underpaid actors dodge falling floodlights and hide their costumes from prop thieves. The city is an aggregation of humans, pressed close against one another. “The truth is that all animals need habitats, whether it is a hermit crab living in another man’s shell or an ant colony,” Jenkins wrote. In these natural dwellings as much as the man-made city, there is “the need for protection, community, bike lanes and closeness”.

In the city, we live parallely, crossing at serendipitous intersections. A few years ago, living in Seattle, I ran into the same man at least once a week. We passed one another in restaurants, bookstores and street corners of all different neighborhoods. 

Eventually I remembered the first time I had seen him: he had developed my roll of film, 36 portraits of my life. Like confronting a Jenkins installation, my world was rocked with the force of surreality. Encounters with intimacy among the tangle of high-rises and drain pipes and pigeons feel so impossible that our individual experiences create a collective non-reality.

Mark Jenkins’ figures remind us, poetically, of our common preposterousness. Both beautiful and impossible, we and our doppelgängers are the spectacular actors on the stage set of rediscovery.

Images courtesy of MARK JENKINS