WRITER: Nadine Khalil PHOTOGRAPHER: Daniel Stier
Marc Quinn is one of the world’s most important living artists. Having emerged in the early 1990s, his organic readymades and sculptures of the human body have provoked astonishment and enthusiasm – in equal measure – and though he may have softened with age, he still looks to the rigorous world of science for guidance.
Looking at Marc Quinn’s most recent work in the Middle East, as part of an inaugural ‘The World Meets Here’ group show in Dubai’s Custot Gallery, it’s difficult not to reflect on what a far cry it is from that which first brought him to fame. If “blood head” doesn’t sound familiar, then maybe his initial association with YBA (Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) in the 1990s will resonate, though most of those artists have moved on in their own individual careers. Given their link to shock value and social spectacle, it is an affiliation Quinn doesn’t really want to think about today. “That was a long time ago,” he says during a quick chat at the gallery after his opening talk.
Nonetheless, he is still feeding a blood head today, the sixth in the series of ‘Self’ in fact. Having started with the first in 1991, these eerie replicas of his own head, cast in almost five litres of his own blood (drawn over a five month period for the sake of his own survival) have been growing in number by a rate of one piece every five years. Each is disembodied and sits atop a stainless-steel plinth containing a refrigeration unit that keeps it in a solid state by remaining frozen at -18 degrees Celsius. Charles Saatchi bought the first but in 2005 he sold it to American hedge-fund manager, Steve Cohen, for a reported 1.5 million GBP (almost 3 million USD at that time).
“It’s like Beckett does Rembrandt because it’s self-repetitive,” says Quinn wryly, referring to the latter’s numerous self-portraits, “I wanted to make a sculpture that is as real as possible, that’s made of me. It is the ultimate portrait.” He points out that the heads can even function as repositories since you could technically perform a biopsy on each one to learn more about the health of his body at that particular moment.
The closer you get to Quinn’s works, the more you identify a certain morbidity (yes, he did create those paintings and sculptures in 1997, using his own excrement) but in many ways, they have more to do with life than death. It’s not in fact art for art’s sake since underpinning his oeuvre is a great fascination with the natural world, a need to understand it and the knowledge it brings.
Far left: Marc Quinn’s 2000 follow-up to ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’. Middle: ‘The Ecstatic Autogenesis of Pamela’ (Anderson) was created in 2010. Top right: From 2006 to 2010 Quinn created various iterations of Kate Moss, all in yoga positions. Bottom right: This is the very first ‘Self’ sculpture that Quinn made. Since 1991 he has made five more.
“I like to make art that reflects the world we live in. We are all embodied beings – we cannot be alive without being inside the body – this is universal. So it’s paradoxical that ‘Self’ looks like an image of death. It has the same amount of blood as my own body – and I’m still alive. It refers to the amazing ability of the body to recreate itself and how we take for granted a whole infrastructure that supports us.” In an interesting parallel, when his first ‘Self’ began to age through desiccation, Quinn turned to a team of scientists for help. The solution turned out to be silicone oil, which forms a barrier to prevent the mould from drying out.
More than an artist of grand gestures, Quinn often pushes the boundaries between art and science in his experiments to create long-lasting art. Because of his openness to other disciplines and paths to knowledge, he says he made sure not to study art at university, opting instead to read History and Art History at Cambridge. Yet it is science that truly permeates his work.
The inclination might have started because his father was a physicist but whether it was due to chance or environment, Quinn isn’t content with facile methods. His freezing technique lead to further explorations with liquid silicone, this time 25 tonnes of it plunged in a large-scale walk-through ‘Garden’ installation for the Prada Foundation in 2000 – an impossibly colourful artificial paradise of preserved flowers. “Like my head, ‘Garden’ looks like it’s alive but it’s a hallucination – a moment of transformation from real life into art. It’s a sculpture of plants made in the material of plants. Human desire brought all of these flowers together; you normally wouldn’t find them in the same part of the world. The flower gives up life for eternity – like all things, it stays beautiful because it dies young.”
Taking his work even further afield, Quinn’s 2001 portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir John Sulston, consisted of a piece of polycarbonate agar jelly, bacteria colonies (cloned from a single sperm cell containing part of Sulston’s full genome) and a gel cell, enclosed in a refrigerated, stainless steel frame. “That’s as real as you can get because the DNA contains the map for you to re-make yourself.”
So where does all this leave Quinn’s works today? According to Stéphane Custot, founder of the Dubai gallery, and a man with whom Quinn has worked for more than a decade, he is shifting geographies, both literally and figuratively. “It’s been fascinating to see the evolution of his oeuvre and I know that he has wanted to exhibit his work in this region for a while,” he says. The two works Custot chose for his first show are a 2011 shell bronze sculpture, ‘The Origin of the World (Cassis Madagascariensis) Longitudes’, and a 2013 iris painting, ‘The Eye of History – Desert Perspective’. “I personally love those pieces with their references to the power of science and nature.”
The iris painting comes from his body of work: ‘We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars’ and follows in a similar conceptual vein to his DNA series. “We are all the same but we are different. Our irises and fingerprints, normally scanned at airports verify our identity, and make us each unique. They are where abstraction and figuration meet.” Quinn blows up the iris and paints it like a colourful aperture, superimposed on the map of a world. Then there are his new works made using a 3D scanner to print much larger replica sculptures of found seashells (imitating the way organisms reproduce through DNA) but for Quinn, it’s essentially the fact that this highly intricate structure “is made by a tiny, brainless creature, without a spinal column,” as he puts it. “It’s the archaeology of art. This begs the question: is art created or does it exist in the world we found ourselves in. Is it discovered or invented?” Which makes me think, what came first, art or science?
“It is my sense that art should always be ahead of the world,” he continues, “You bring life into art and then the world plays catch up.” A big pronouncement perhaps but it dramatically puts Quinn’s whole trajectory as an artist into perspective, beginning from when he made his series of disabled sculptures, partly fuelled by fragmented or damaged classical statues in museums, which then inspired his seminal sculpture, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ (an English artist born without arms and with shortened legs) in Trafalgar square in 2005 (an inflatable version of which was also presented at the opening ceremony of London’s Paralympic Games in 2012 and then later exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale), thus shifting the way public art is experienced. In 2008, he worked on the completely opposite image of the perfect or idolised woman with ‘Siren’, an 18-karat gold statue of Kate Moss (which recently fetched 1.3 million USD at auction). He then moved on to transsexuals, always keeping people guessing as to what he’d do next.
“The world was changing. What was seen as sensationalist then is normal now. At the time, I was celebrating different type of bodies, different types of beauty and different types of normal. Marble is the material of celebration. When I made perfect neoclassical marble statues for the disabled, which are normally uncelebrated bodies, it wasn’t about the past, Greek or Roman, it was about the future. Today, people can transform themselves through surgery. You can basically sculpt your own body,” says Quinn.
As of late, he’s tuning in more to the environment, with his ‘Toxic Sublime’ series of sculptural paintings, formed through a complex process in which Quinn takes photographs of picturesque sunsets, in a reference to Turner, which he then enlarges and takes to the street, sanding them down and covering parts of the surface with spray-painted driftwood reliefs and impressions of manhole covers and sewer grates, among other symbols of controlled water flow in an urban setting. “It’s a synthesis between the natural and the urban, an essay on human intervention. It’s terrible and beautiful at the same time.” By turning the paintings on their heads, mounting them on aluminium sheets, then twisting and creasing them, perhaps he is trying to say we can no longer paint idyllic sunsets – it is no longer our time to do so.
In his art, Quinn alludes to a powerful theory of natural evolution, both in our environments and our bodies, by digging at the complex interrelationship between art and science, identity and sexuality, process and creation, life and the fragility of our existence, corporeality and material transformation, and he sums it all up with a parting shot: “Both art and science are concerned with where we come from and where we are going to but where science looks for the answers, art poses the questions, and creates a space in which you can dream.”