Interview with Marc Quinn on moving away from his body

The artist talks about truncation in art and life as his show opens at White Cube2

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Marc Quinn’s career was launched with “Self”, the perfect cast of his head made from nine pints of his own frozen blood, now owned by Charles Saatchi, which first went on show in the Grob Gallery in 1991. Since then he has continued to investigate what he has described as “the fundamental mysteries of existence” in media as varied as rubber, lead, coconut milk and his own faeces.

In the past Quinn has combined art and science to investigate his own bodily boundaries, but lately he has turned his attention to the bodies of others. In a widely acclaimed show at the Prada Foundation in Milan last summer he presented eight marble sculptures of people lacking some or all of their limbs. These were accompanied by his most ambitious work to date: a walk-in steel chamber, containing an entire garden of plants from across the world, frozen in full bloom in a giant tank of liquid silicone. “Garden” now belongs to the Prada Foundation, but it is the subject of a series of new permanent pigment paintings which, along with new sculptures, go on show at White Cube2 from 30 November until 13 January.

Until the Prada Foundation show last summer, your exhibitions were dominated by representations or replicas of your body in a multiplicity of materials and manipulated into myriad forms. Now you seem to be moving away from using your own form. Why?

I always saw it as a beginning point and not an end point and I felt that it was time to move on and out into the world. I got bored of using my own body and I also got sick of being trapped in the obvious readings—with people thinking that the work was about me, personally.

But right now you’re working on extracting your own DNA...

I’m not very good at it yet. I’ve got to get better. I can’t remember the figures exactly, but there are something like 330 million different permutations of DNA and the difference between you and me is only a 1,000. So, although you could clone me from what’s in this test tube, this DNA is really a picture of everyone.

What are you going to do with it?

I’m making a sculpture which is very simple: just a test tube containing, hopefully, a more perfect specimen than you see here. I don’t want to present it in a big cabinet with lots of stuff. I want it to be just the test tube on the wall, so it looks completely unpretentious, but has got the whole of life in it. Although it will look like the smallest thing in the [White Cube] gallery, it will be the biggest thing in the whole show, because it has the whole of human life in it and it’s also a crossover of the artist’s self and every other person in the world.

Tell me about the new marble sculptures for the White Cube show.

When I was doing the sculptures for the Prada show, I met Alison Lapper, who was born almost without arms and with short legs. Her right arm has got a little bit and her left arm is missing. Later on she phoned me up and said that she was eight months pregnant, and so I made a sculpture of her, and five months later I made another sculpture of her, like a kind of Madonna and Child, with her baby on her knee—he’s completely able-bodied.

By using the disabled as subject matter are you aiming to challenge what is traditionally considered acceptable to look at, and what is not?

The starting point was when I was at the British Museum, looking at the Classical sculptures and I wondered what, if you took these sculptures literally, the models would look like. It’s about the difference between art and life: how come, when you see a real person missing an arm or leg, and when you see a sculpture without limbs, the emotional response is completely different? In sculptures like the Venus de Milo or the Farnese Hercules, conventional, Classical beauty is accentuated by what has been broken off. The idea of the fragment is the idea of loss and loss is always moving...

Yet it’s a thin line to tread between a celebration of the hitherto unacceptable and a freakshow.

Yes, but as far as I’m concerned, I think that I’ve trodden it. All these sculptures were made in complete collaboration with the subjects. One of them, Alexandra, who had lost both her legs and her arm in a car accident only five years ago, wrote to me saying that making the sculpture was the most positive thing she’d done since her accident because it was about seeing herself and her new image in a beautiful way. Also the actual material, the marble, is so absolutely strong as itself; it’s so glowingly, amazingly white that it overwhelms you with beauty—and so you absolutely don’t get a sense of freakshow, it’s like walking among gods.

Last summer you created your own version of the Garden of Eden: a frozen “garden” of plants of all kinds in perfect bloom suspended in 25 tons of chilled liquid silicone.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of permanency and transience: frozen things that are transient kept for permanent lengths of time, and vice-versa. I wanted to make a beautiful environment, but there’s this tension between natural and constructed because you see that the flowers are real, but then it’s impossible that they would ever all grow together like this, and so you get this tension that it looks real but can’t possibly be. So it’s also about desire: the flowers are behind glass and surrounded by mirrors so they are replicated for ever all around you. Then this fits in with the whole idea of cloning and DNA—in terms of atomic structure you’re not that different from all the flowers around you.

And you are the only living thing in the midst of all this blooming beauty.

The flowers are perfect and will last for ever, but they are dead—they’ve lost their biological life for symbolic immortality—so they are sculptures of things from which the life has disappeared. They have the exact appearance that they have in life, but they’re dead, and that’s very uncanny. But before you think of all of these things, you can be just seduced by the gorgeousness of it...

It’s disconcerting to dip a bit of wire into the silicon and give the flowers a prod, as I have just done with one of your test tanks, and feel the chink of petals that are hard, like china.

I like things that seem to be completely unchanged, but are, in fact, completely transformed. There’s this idea that to make something surreal you have to make it weird and twisted, but, in fact, the more deadpan it is, the more surreal it is. What I’m more interested in now is things that seem like they are not transformed, but they actually are.

For your show at White Cube you’ve given “Garden” yet more permanence by fixing its image in a new series of “Paintings” in permanent pigment, although they look more like photographs.

They start from photographic origins, but they are printed in permanent pigment onto canvas. In the Sixties you had Warhol using screen prints, which was the medium of the moment, to make what I think we’d call paintings now, and so I wanted to find something that was like a new medium, but also was relevant to what I wanted—to make paintings like that. These paintings are made from minerals, so they should look exactly the same in two hundred years. When I made the garden it seemed like the perfect subject matter to use here.

They are very luscious, but also on the edge of kitsch.

It’s about good and bad taste as well—a flower painting is the ultimate banal good taste—but flowers are meant to fade and these never will. I love the idea of using the most inoffensive subject, yet also making it disturbing.

Your processes often immerse you in the world of science; your studio looks more like a lab, albeit one with a palette of paints among the test tubes...

You can use scientific ideas, but if you’re an artist you have to present them in a way that is immediately accessible and has other levels you can access later. For me, if something isn’t immediately accessible to someone who doesn’t know anything about art, then I’ve failed, although it has to have depth and resonance as well. I’m seduced by fact, by object and by atom, and, then, other meanings come anyway.

So your sculpture owes its appearance to the pragmatics of your materials? If there is distortion, it is because that is how the material reacts?

Exactly. I’m anti-Expressionist, basically.

But your sculpture can often carry a strong “Gee-Wow” factor: it can be very spectacular.

That can never be the reason for doing something. I am always focused on the idea and making it function as a work of art. I’m an artist. I’m interested in images. I’m not a scientist. The science and the spectacle may be there, but it’s not the main reason. If you do something and it’s big and exciting, it puts some people off, but it brings other people in. And, in the end, once you get through that, the question is, does it work?

• “Marc Quinn” 30 November to 13 January at White Cube2, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB. % +44 (0)20 7930 5373; fax: +44 (0)20 7749 7460

Biography

Born London, 1964. 1982-85 Cambridge University

Solo shows include 1988: Bronze Sculpture, Jay Jopling/Otis Gallery, London; 1991: “Out of time”, Jay Jopling/Grob Gallery, London; 1995: “Emotional detox: the seven deadly sins”, Tate Gallery, London; “The blind leading the blind”, Jay Jopling/White Cube, London; 1998: “Incarnate”, Gagosian Gallery, New York; Marc Quinn, South London Gallery; 1999: Kunstverein, Hanover; 2000 Fondazione Prada, Milan; Groninger Museum, The Netherlands.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline 'Away from his body'

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