Art’s a Science
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. “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 apiece 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.”