Jenkin van Zyl: Surrender | Edel Assanti

I love this video of Jenkin van Zyl, which I stumbled across while writing this post. In it, the young artist and filmmaker cheerfully discusses his horrifyingly time-consuming “extreme beauty regime” in his impeccably plummy Home Counties accent. The video’s intercut with footage of van Zyl striding around east London and then eating a takeaway in full kabuki makeup, facial prosthetics and blow-up latex body suit. He’s like a lither Leigh Bowery for the Instagram generation.

Van Zyl’s films, the latest of which is on show now at Edel Assanti, are long, lushly-shot and narrative-driven. When I saw his Machines of Love at the Royal Academy Schools Show last year - van Zyl did a postgraduate degree there - I wondered where he could possibly have found the budget for the costumes, the soundtrack, the location work. The answer is that, he didn’t. Instead, he claims to have trespassed on old film sets, dodging security guards and guard dogs, shooting on GoPros to keep things on a “micro budget”. A cinematographic version of an extreme beauty regime - looking expensive on a shoestring.

Jenkin Van Zyl - ‘Surrender’ (installation view)

The latest film, Surrender, while using actual booked-out locations for the first time, sticks to this pattern. “I do too much stuff,” the artist said in a recent interview. “I really want to have the money to work with other people but, because of necessity, I do all the costumes, the camera, the editing work, the sound. But that’s all under direction, in a way.” This seems breathtakingly impressive, but I guess would be a piece of cake for someone committed enough to apply silicon horns to their head every day - which van Zyl is, according to his beauty regime video.

Anyway, Surrender reflects many of the artist’s fascinations that can be seen in the previous films, too: techno music, fetish outfits, campy gore, creepy masks. That list might make the work sound off-putting and disturbing - but that’s not it at all. It’s as fun to watch van Zyl’s fantastic characters in rat tails, rat masks and high heels caper around his sets - a bedroom, a ballroom, an industrial facility - as it is to watch the artist put on his makeup and prosthetics. There’s a shared and infectious sense of fun and joy in the naughtiness of the show.

Characters in Surrender (the lead is actually played by Alex Margo Arden, who I’ve featured on here before) are soaked in stage blood and viscera. The plot’s based on some pretty hideous inspirations - in this case, the legend of the “rat king” (google it if you have a strong stomach) and the Depression-era dance marathons where poverty-stricken couples kept moving for days on end for a tiny cash prize. The characters go through a bunch of ritualistic tasks before an ultimate winner is declared - I bet van Zyl was a fan of Squid Game on Netflix when it came out.

But nobody’s going home with nightmares. A sign of van Zyl’s appeal is that there were so many people in the gallery, and that so many, including me, stayed to watch to the end of the 40-minute film.

Maybe I stayed because I was sat so comfortably: the red-lit screening room has hotel-style beds facing the big screen, mirroring one of Surrender’s sets. I perched on one side of the bed closest to the door, feet kept on the ground, sunk into the soft mattress. A way more comfortable gallery viewing experience than usual. That said though, there was a pipe that dug into my back - a representation of the same suction pipes that deliver messages to the rat characters in the film, telling them about whatever campily hideous trial their unseen overlords have for them that day.

I only figured out what it was after a few minutes - being so riveted by what was on the screen that I didn’t have the bandwidth to figure out exactly what was digging into my back. Lucky for me, writing about all the fun later, that this slight discomfort among all the stimulation serves as a nice metaphor for experiencing van Zyl’s art as a whole.

Jenkin van Zyl: Surrender is at Eden Assanti (London). 19 January - 04 March 2023