Mark Jenkins new work in Barcelona

photo by Mark Jenkins

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Mark Jenkins‘ work. What always impresses me about his body of work is not only the quality of the finished pieces, but the way in which he integrates them into the urban fabric. His storkers can often be found playing with and in the cast-off areas of the city, creating both a sense of delight and tension in their innocence bordering on misadventure, while his embeds turn the otherwise anonymous areas of the city into theatrical arenas of intrigue and almost discomfort for the passers-by. But with his latest work in Barcelona, he has hit a new stride.

The piece shown above is The Golden Ass – one of his embeds, this time hacking the world of street theatre and people masquerading as “living sculptures”. For those who aren’t familiar with Mark’s work, his “embeds” are hauntingly realistic sculptures he creates out of tightly rolled newspaper, then shapes, clothes and installs accordingly. So, yes, there isn’t actually anyone inside the donkey costume – a fact delightfully lost on the spectators. Being particularly impressed with the piece, I had a conversation with him today about it. As Mark explains:

“I see a lot of performance artists trying to become sculptures or playing dead/frozen these days and so it’s nice to meet them half-way on this one.

“Part of the camouflage was to put a coin bucket in front of the piece, and surprisingly the piece earned over 200 euros that day (before diasspearing in the night) so i think the commerce of street art in the gallery… while interesting, to me it’s as interesting pimping a street piece like this direct, and it makes a point in itself.”

As he says, it is the direct nature, even the direct funding, of this piece that really brings it home. While the whole people making money by standing really still for long periods of time Living Sculpture phenomenon has become a ubiquitous part of the urban tourist experience, the tips offered forth by the public are always for their roles as performers (or pity – it’s a sliding scale). Yet here, even unbeknownst to the public, the money put forth is for the performance of the piece of art itself. It’s a brilliant urban hack on Mark’s part.

Lastly, what resonates with me is of course the title of the work, The Golden Ass. One of the great fantasy stories of literature, it is the tale of how the main character, Lucius, falls victim to his over-enthusiasm to witness a magic act, and accidentally gets transformed into an ass. As such, he is put to work and is forced to witness and share the misfortunes and hardships of the other slaves and workers who are exploited at the hands of the wealthy. Anyone else feeling the analogy here?

Harkening back to University literature classes here, I was also drawn by the significance that The Golden Ass begins with a charge to the reader: “intende”. Literally translated, it means “be attentive”. But it is a conditional phrase also, meaning that if you are attentive, then you will take pleasure in this experience. So, as parable, for those who see merely a Living Sculpture on the streets of Barcelona and offer a few coins to it, there is a certain level of appreciation. But for those that pay a greater degree of attention to what is taking place in the macro of the piece, there is an enormous amount of enjoyment within the work.