jInken van Zyl’s art has many elements of a good party – balloons, cupcakes, inflatables, dancing. But any resemblance to a toddler’s birthday stops there. Its clearly NSFW (not safe for work). Cast members in his films wear grotesque monster masks and tight fetish outfits. Fake blood flows abundantly. His films are tense and claustrophobic, sticky with longing, oozing with menace.
“I am interested in extremism,” he told me. “Art becomes a really good excuse to do bad, deviant, or experimental things.”
I first came across van Zyl’s work at the Kiss My Genders show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2019. His five-screen Looners is installed in a rickety wooden castle filled with swords and axes. On screen, a rabble in creepy latex masks and extravagant inflatable costumes are doing gross, mysterious activities in a desert mansion. Shot when Van Zyl was a student at Royal Academy of Arts In London, the Looners felt like bootleg footage of a forbidden ritual: There was something going on before me, though it wasn’t clear what was going on.
I met Van Zyl, now 29, on the first day of the show at London’s Edel Assanti. The gallery is stacked with mattresses and wall panels, turning into a “love hotel” in which to watch his new film, “Surrender”. It’s his first work to use an official location: the previous three were filmed on old movie sets while the cast and dodgy dogs and security guards dodged. His first movie, Fort Bravo, was filmed in Spain on the sets of a spaghetti western: “It was just me, a friend, and a flip camera, with a backpack of jockstraps in the desert,” he says.
Filming on a shoestring budget led to official innovation. Memorable shots in Looners were filmed inside huge weather balloons, as if in the womb with the characters. Van Zyl leaves the trick clear. Two pairs of grappling hands are shown, dripping in gore, with fake blood applied from a bottle. The thick edges of the latex masks are left exposed, as are the pink silicone edges of the fake chest covers. Van Zyl pulled off some amazing shots as he and his close group of friends were willing to put themselves on the line.
He has gone through fire and ice for his art. For Fort Bravo, Van Zyl bought flame paste from the Flints theatrical chandeliers—I thought I’d discovered this magical special effect. I covered myself with flame paste and set my apartment on fire. It’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever done: my latex mask was melting into my leather jacket.” Was it worth it?
This desire to push his body to the limits led Van Zyl to perform as an outdoor body double in Iceland for The Love Machines (2020/21). Wearing a latex mask, crop top and stilettos, the character walks from an underground play area to the pristine whiteness of Sub-Zero Spring, then climbs an exposed slope through deep snow before lounging at the top. “I got completely lost in a bewildering blizzard,” van Zyl recalled. A friend was supposed to operate the drone to guide him down the mountain. By the time they got it back, “my entire mask was filled with thick mucus and vomit – I went into hypothermic shock.”
Extreme experiences and the pursuit of personal freedom are the source of the new work’s surrender. Central character Grace – played by Alex Margo Arden – is a rat-faced woman who is summoned to a love hotel for a week of exotic experiences centered on a dance marathon. Filmed with a cast of famous actors and dancers, it explores the dance floor as a site of grammar as well as liberation. “I am interested in the politics of nightlife venues—the loss of oneself within a crowd or group—but also, how they become a microcosm of issues outside the nightclub: misogyny, transphobia, racism, or living under capitalism.” Surrender uses “this idea of the nightclub or dance floor to examine other structures of control.”
Clubs were a place of escape for Van Zyl growing up. His parents moved from South Africa to Surrey (“British Tory belt too tight”) shortly before he was born. With the capital less than an hour away, “from a young age I’d run away to London, sleeping in the stations to take the first train home,” he says.
The yearning to find your people, to find your tribe, is a driving interest. Many of the props and costumes in van Zyl’s work have associations with specific sub-groups. The Silver Tail hail suits used in Survivors are manufactured by an American company that specializes in the extreme weather apparel and camping gear that Survivors are famous for. The anonymous face masks used in Looners “are favored in certain fetish communities, where they come off as being anonymous in public. It’s fetishism in disguise: they’ll go and order a pizza from a drive-in, and film themselves doing it.” Reflected in the film’s title are balloon aficionados, who share the “fantasy of inflating your body beyond your modest bodily capabilities, to the point of being so tight you’ll burst…or not.”
Van Zyl himself appeared in a gorgeous balloon outfit — a voluminous muscle suit — for a video of extreme beauty procedures shot for Vogue. In the video, he described his daily life, even feeding the ducks in the local park, in outrageous clothing. On the London art scene, his signature style is Mr. Tumnus do Berghain – artificial horns and ears, heavy facial piercings and clothes plundered from Shakespeare’s theatre. He and fellow artist Alex Margo Arden are amateur auctioneers and fashion salesmen. “When the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon removed their oversized clothes, we stood in line for 13 hours in the rain, in a tent, outside,” he says. “By the time we got in, we were giddy, pushed over the bars. We have a base where you get the discarded peach and silk stuff, I get any of the armor, and then anything in the middle, we have to fight for.”
By his standards, he’s dressed to meet us today, though his suede shirt with cut-off sleeves and lace-ups wouldn’t look out of place at The Globe. The pointed metal ear prostheses add to the bold effect. TELL ME HE LOVED TO DRESS UP: Halloween, Christmas, birthday parties, or any event that calls for creative use of a trash bag or old cardboard. “This has gotten out of control as I’ve gotten older.”
Does he see himself as a work of art, and wonder about his life as a show? For the first time he looks uncomfortable. “So much of my energy is put into work that these things seem just incidental. It’s a space of pleasure and self-reshaping,” he says thoughtfully. “Perhaps it is a personal comment, but I get frustrated when that is seen as the most interesting or beautiful part of the work. The identity space within the work is more interesting to me than my own personal presentation.”
Behind the devilish design, Van Zyl is quick-witted and likable. He is close to his parents (“both of them are really amazing”) who lend their hand to building collections and managing costumes. In one memorable sequence in Machines of Love, the characters become pregnant and their stomachs take the shape of their alien, masked faces of monsters—these belly faces transform into an artfully iced cake, duly ripped and mutilated. The cake was made by a friend of Van Zyl’s mom – Magda Viljoen – who produced the oddly decorated gateau for his last three films and is now a member of the crew. “She’s really good with the performers, very nice,” he says. In her surrender she worked in costume maintenance: “She forbids me to make anything when she’s not on set now.”
While Van Zyl acknowledges influences in the art world (Mika Rothenberg and Ryan Trecarten are the most obvious) his references come, overwhelmingly, from cinema. As a child, he adored Czech animator Jan Šavankmajer and cites his exaggerated, itchy soundscapes as an influence. Other formative favorites include John Waters and Pedro Almodóvar – “Mine When I Was Growing Up”. Developing Surrender, he looked at Gaspar Noé’s 2018 film Climax, as well as Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Right? (1969). Would he ever leave the art world to direct a feature himself? “I am glad to.”
If there is one overarching theme to his work it is the power of society – brought together either by choice or circumstance. The club scene is one such tribe. So is the film crew. “I’m not particularly optimistic, but I think the idea of getting together, somewhere, as a group, is still really important,” van Zyl says, Before We Parted. “Art and filmmaking, for me, are a means of imagining, if not a better world, then a different one—that is liberating in itself.”