One has a strange sense of déjà vu upon meeting British artist Marc Quinn. His head—or, rather, a frozen sculpture of it cast from his own blood—has become an iconic image of contemporary art, etched into our collective memory. At once a portrait of the artist and of Everyman, the sculpture, titled Self, encapsulates life and death—a memento mori of real matter that could, theoretically, be cloned to make new life. And there is a steadily growing army of these eerie Quinn replicas, which evoke Frankenstein’s monster, Aztec sacrifice, and the Christian Eucharist.
Inspired by Rembrandt’s self-portraits charting his visage from youth to old age, Quinn has undertaken to produce a new “Self” every five years, which involves extracting eight pints of his blood over several months. He has made five to date, yet these so-called blood heads, each disembodied atop a stainless-steel plinth containing a refrigeration unit, defy any linear aging process; indeed, Quinn’s original head from 1991 looks the most elderly.
“‘Self’ is almost like a Beckett version of Rembrandt,” Quinn says. “With Rembrandt, it’s really about him at every point and his personality, whereas mine is like a repetition of the same thing. It’s more of a 21st-century vision of progress.” As for why he chose blood as the medium, he says he wanted to push the material boundaries of sculpture, and “blood was the only part of my body I could take out without mutilating myself.”
In Quinn’s East London studio, huge paintings of psychedelic flowers and human irises compete for attention with sculptures of supermodel Kate Moss tied up in yogic knots, a transsexual couple copulating doggy style, and outsize conch shells. Such apparently disparate subjects are linked by the artist’s abiding concern to reflect the culture of our times. In his explorations of identity, sexuality, beauty, and the fragility of existence, he has made sculptures of porn stars and disabled people, paintings of gigantic fingerprints, and installations of frozen flower gardens. Equally diverse are his materials, which include bread, DNA, ice, feces, and the placenta and blood from his son’s birth.
At 50, Quinn retains a youthful appearance, sporting a $200 lime-green T-shirt bearing a fingerprint pattern that is part of the clothing line he launched three years ago and a black Rolex he designed with the Bamford Watch Department. Currently, he’s busy creating new works for an exhibition in September at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga in Spain, and for three major solo shows scheduled for next year: at the 18th-century Jantar Mantar outdoor observatory in Jaipur, India; the Denver Art Museum; and White Cube’s cavernous Bermondsey branch in southeast London.
He’s putting together a new tapestry series (made with a computerized Jacquard loom) that depicts scenes of recent uprisings worldwide. These pieces extend from his tapestry The Creation of History (2012), based on an image of the 2011 riots in England, showing a hooded youth against a backdrop of conflagration. “I was interested in the way that tapestries were used to celebrate battles in medieval times,” he explains. “These are like contemporary battles.” Unlike the tapestries that formerly lined palace walls, Quinn’s are destined for the floor—to be trodden on and transformed, reflecting the democratic spirit of grassroots protests.
His bronzes of bonsai trees mark another foray into new techniques, using revolutionary technology to scan the dimensions of a living tree and then laser-cut a prototype that is later cast in bronze. “I believe that 3-D scanning—which I have already used in the shell sculptures—is a development for sculpture as important as the invention of photography was for painting a hundred years ago,” he says.
Quinn was born in London in 1964 to a French mother and a British father—a physicist who worked for many years in Paris at the BIPM (the French initialism for the International Bureau of Weights and Measures), an organization that keeps the world standard for time and weights. Quinn vividly remembers visiting his father’s laboratory, where they would look at atomic clocks together.
In the early 1990s, Quinn rose to prominence as one of the original Young British Artists, or YBAs, who shook up London’s contemporary-art scene with their provocative conceptual works and hedonistic antics. The thread uniting the divergent group was, in Quinn’s view, “the idea of bringing real life into art” as well as a refusal to wait for institutional approval to show their work.
Often portrayed in the media as the brainy one, Quinn studied history and art history at the University of Cambridge, whereas many other YBAs pursued fine art at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College. He says he never had any formal art training, but prior to Cambridge he worked as an assistant to Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan, renowned for his quirky bronzes of hares.
Quinn shared an apartment with Damien Hirst’s then-girlfriend, Maia Norman; partied hard; and battled with alcoholism. He went into rehab in 1993 and gave up booze. “It was just a choice between death and life, really. It was quite extreme,” says the artist, whose placid demeanor and soft voice belie a temperament drawn to extremity.
He was the first YBA to be signed by Jay Jopling, director of the multivenue operation White Cube gallery, which still represents him and others from the group. (YBA patron Charles Saatchi snapped up various Quinn works through Jopling, including Self 1991, which he later sold to American hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen.) Today, Quinn’s paintings fetch up to $400,000 and his sculptures range from $250,000 to more than $1.5 million at White Cube and Mary Boone Gallery in New York. His work is in the collections of Britain’s Tate, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among other institutions.
The concept of “materializing the immaterial” and making things disappear fascinates Quinn—the idea that a flick of the power switch could transform an icy self-portrait into a pool of blood. (This was rumored to have happened in the Saatchi home in 2002, but Quinn says the anecdote is an urban myth.) He has created an array of “sculptures on life support” that depend on technology and infrastructure to exist. These range from the blood heads to frozen flowers to Breath (2012), his colossal inflatable sculpture of a disabled, pregnant nude. Quinn regards the last as a “living monument,” saying, “It’s a sculpture kept in the air by breath. It’s very human. If you touch it, it gives like flesh.”
Based on his marble portrait of artist Alison Lapper—who was born armless and with underdeveloped legs—Breath sparked attacks from critics, local media, and the Catholic Church when it was set amid the Renaissance architecture of Venice during last year’s biennale as part of Quinn’s retrospective at the Giorgio Cini Foundation. Quinn considered Breath to be “the only real political work” in the biennale to engage the public, and he viewed the polemic as evidence of its success. “In Italy, where things like disability are very hidden, it was an amazing thing,” he says.
The original Lapper sculpture belonged to a series of immaculately finished marbles portraying disabled people, a rumination on conventional notions of beauty inspired by fragmented classical statuary. The statue won a competition to adorn the Fourth Plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square, where its installation in 2005 alongside monuments of British military legends provoked outrage and admiration. The 36-foot inflatable version became the centerpiece of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London before its outing in Venice.
Further investigating contemporary ideals of physical beauty, Quinn made a series of bronze and gold sculptures of Kate Moss in yogic contortions, presenting the willowy model and tabloid star as a secular deity for our image-obsessed culture. While Quinn’s of-the-moment art seems to touch a chord with the public, critical reception has at times been harsh. “Quinn has fused the conceptual methods of contemporary British art with generous injections of political correctness and heroic sentiment to create some of the shallowest art of our time,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones last year, who branded the Moss sculptures “manipulative mass- attention-seeking non-masterpieces.”
Nonetheless, the Kates have proven to be “great favorites” with collectors, according to Oliver Barker, senior international specialist at Sotheby’s. Since selling the first blood head, Quinn “has arguably had greater longevity than artists such as Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, and even Damien Hirst,” Barker notes. “His is a market which is continually growing and becoming increasingly global.” An 18-karat-gold version of Moss titled Microcosmos (Siren), 2008, sold at auction to an Asian investor for $900,000 in 2011.
More recently, Quinn has found muses in people who have radically altered their bodies through plastic surgery, implants, and tattoos. His 2010 White Cube show featured life-size sculptures of the transgender “pregnant man” Thomas Beatie and of the late Dennis “Stalking Cat” Avners, who received hair implants and tattoos in order to resemble a tiger. The stars of that exhibition were two transsexual porn actors—Allanah Starr, who has retained her penis, and Buck Angel, a trans man who has a vagina—depicted in lacquered bronze as a modern-day Adam and Eve variously holding hands and having sex.
Such a “freak show,” as the British media labeled it, makes Quinn an easy target for charges of voyeurism and titillation. But that’s missing the point, says admirer Joachim Pissarro, an art history professor at New York’s Hunter College and coauthor of Wild Art, a book about unconventional modes of artistic expression. He views Quinn’s portraits in the context of Toulouse-Lautrec’s studies of prostitutes and Degas’s dancers. “Marc looks at human complexities with a very deeply searching, empathetic eye,” Pissarro insists. “There’s a refusal to exclude people who don’t conform to our criteria of what is acceptable or not.”
Science permeates Quinn’s practice, perhaps unsurprisingly. The first blood head kept threatening to freeze-dry due to air in the chamber, until Quinn devised the solution of freezing it in liquid silicone. That spurred further experiments. Leaving a flower in a jar of silicone in his freezer, he found, halted the natural decaying process, resulting in his frozen flowers sculpture series.
“It’s like this magic transformation between life and art,” Quinn says. “You have something that becomes a sculpture of itself made from the same molecules the living plant was made from, but it’s no longer alive.” Taking this further, he created the installation “Garden” at Milan’s Prada Foundation in 2000, an artificial Eden of exotic flowers preserved in eternal bloom in subzero silicone—as long as the power was on.
Those frozen works prompted colorful paintings and bronzes of flowers, which are popular among collectors but lack the expressive punch of Quinn’s raw early sculptures in lead and latex. However, veteran art historian Germano Celant, who curated “Garden” as well as Quinn’s Venice show, argues that the slick appearances conceal profound issues. “When we dismantled ‘Garden,’ the flowers became black—just awful. They became, like, burnt,” he says. “Beauty and death go together in his work.”
The ideas Quinn explores in one body of work often lead tangentially to another. The “Self” series gave rise to a 2001 portrait of John Sulston, made from the Nobel Prize–winning biologist’s DNA. Identity again comes into play in Quinn’s “Labyrinth” paintings of fingerprints and in his iris paintings, both of which appear abstract but are portraits of individuals. “When you enter America, your fingerprint’s taken, your eye’s scanned. It’s like we’re being reduced, we’re controlled by abstraction,” Quinn says. Recently, he has added world maps to the iris works, inspired partly by Alighiero Boetti and also by the 24-hour global news cycle.
Quinn is married to children’s book author Georgia Byng, with whom he has two sons, Lucas, 11, and Sky, 8, and a stepdaughter, Tiger, 23, from Byng’s previous marriage. The family lives in North London and has a second home in the Caribbean, and Quinn and Byng are regulars on the celebrity party circuit. A keen art collector, Quinn has scattered throughout his studio a clay face by Picasso, a Lucio Fontana slash work, a Sarah Lucas resin toilet, seven “Fairytale Chairs” by Ai Weiwei, a Gary Hume painting, and several ancient Indian Chola statues (the inspiration for the yogic Kates).
Despite his modest, affable manner, Quinn clearly has grand aspirations. He says his 2005–7 series of embryos hewn in marble, “Evolution,” reminds him of Michelangelo’s unfinished “Slaves,” and he suggests that his recent oil painting of a naked, pregnant model reclining on raw meat could be a modern version of Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Manet’s Olympia. But then the YBAs are not known for their self-effacement. Asked where his exploration of humanity will go from here, Quinn replies with a smile, “I don’t know yet. That’s what keeps me going.” And then he adds, “The only limits are in my mind.”
Elizabeth Fullerton is a freelance writer based in London. She is working on a history of Britart to be published by Thames & Hudson.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 76 under the title “‘Self’ in the Age of Selfies.”