Room Full of People: Mark Jenkins and the Perception of Presence

by Anna Kovler

Jun, 2017

As soon as the summer show was mounted at Arsenal Contemporary in Toronto, concerned neighbors began calling the police. They were worried about two people sitting on the roof of the building, a sheet thrown over their heads. Despite their perch atop an art gallery, and their obvious lack of movement, onlookers were convinced these were real people. Perhaps the couple was just trespassing there, playing a not-so-funny game, or worse, maybe they had been killed and left in that position. Neither theory was particularly comforting. Everyone felt uneasy about it, worried about those poor people.

Playing with human perception is central to Mark Jenkin’s sculptures. He casts real human bodies and arranges the figures into lonely, sad, or mysterious poses. Alternatively, using the same process, he recreates humorous, eerie versions of iconic protagonists from well-known paintings, photographs, and fairytales. Magritte’s The Lovers shares the room with Goldilocks and the couple from Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Despite the fact that Jenkins does not aim for total believability, all of these life-sized figures exude an overwhelmingly human presence. There are no meticulously crafted silicone hands, no human faces or visible skin here. All of his people are covered head to toe in some kind of clothing – gloves on the hands, stockings on the legs, hair combed over the face. A careful observer will quickly realize these are not real people, and yet the “human” presence of the sculptures does not diminish. Something about the thickness of the limbs and the correct proportions registers uncontrollably like a real human being.

Near the entrance to the bathroom, another of Jenkin’s sculptures startles viewers. A woman appears to be leaning head first into the wall, her arms crossed at her chest, hair covering her face. Even after seeing a gallery full of these “false” people, this sad woman seems so real. As you pass her, a wave of empathy automatically rises up as you remind yourself that, no, this is just a sculpture. With this simple gesture Jenkins makes us aware of the lack of control we have over our perceptions and emotions. Are we really that automatic? If taken to its ultimate conclusion, this work raises more troubling and important questions. Could we recognize robots from real humans? And, what other mistakes are we making with our habitual perceptions? Jenkins does not provide any answers, but leaves viewers, and the whole neighborhood, with a lot to think about.

Mark Jenkins is on view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto from June 17 to September 9, 2017.