Marc Quinn interview: Just a load of shock? (2000)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 15 September 2009
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 19(8), pp. 15-9; and in G. Harper & T. Moyer’s Conversations on Sculpture (2007), pp. 52-57. (International Sculpture Center Press: Hamilton, NJ, USA; distributed by University of Washington Press).

Marc Quinn interview

Marc Quinn continues to shock the uninitiated with his materials—including his own blood and excrement. From unconventional materials and processes, he creates figurative forms such as Self (1991). Made by pouring nine pints of his own blood (extracted over a five-month period) into a silicone model of his head, then placed inside a refrigerated and transparent perspex cube, the piece has raised questions about mortality, time, material, and self-portraiture. First exhibited in London in 1991, Self was included in the media-saturated tour of “Sensation,” which started at London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1997 and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. Over the years, Marc Quinn’s work has been dismissed by some as just a load of shock, and headlines such as “Invasion of the Body Sculptures,” “Bad Blood,” and “Severed States” haven’t helped.

While Marc Quinn acknowledges that his work may be shocking, he does not consider himself to be a “shock artist”; instead, he is interested in unveiling a certain reality and using science as a means of facilitating a personal artistic statement. His 1999 solo show at the Kunstverein Hannover in Germany continued some threads within his work, as in Paranoid Nervous Breakdown and Final Nervous Breakdown (both 1999)— and initiated new ones, as in his contentious marble sculptures. Most recently, Marc Quinn had his first one-man show in Italy at the Fondazione Prada in Milan (reviewed in this issue). Previously, his work has been exhibited at Gagosian Gallery in New York; Jay Jopling/White Cube, the Tate Gallery, and the South London Gallery in London; and in Amsterdam, Athens, Paris, and Washington. His works are in the British Museum, Tate Gallery, Saatchi Collection, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

R. J. Preece: In some of the press clippings about you and your work, it has been said that you don’t consider yourself to be a shock artist. But surely you understand that your work can be shocking for some viewers.

Marc Quinn: I just think that if you use materials that have an ability to communicate directly, you open up a channel and you can work through that. So you are using the power of materials. But by “shock” I mean that somebody uses that for no other reason but to use it, whereas I would use it to make the work communicate a different idea more directly, not to use a material for its own sake.

R. J. Preece: With the marble sculptures exhibited in your solo show at the Kunstverein Hannover, the first thing I thought about was how the Gillespie piece (1999) responded to antique sculpture.

Marc Quinn: It’s more about looking at something, and what you bring to it from your knowledge of the context of art. And so, what is acceptable and aesthetic in art is very shocking and different in real life. I was in the British Museum, and I thought, “If you took these [marble sculptures, many of them missing limbs] literally, what would the modern versions look like?” But the sculptures are also celebrations of the sitters—they are heroic sculptures of these disabled athletes.

At first, these pieces appear to be fragmentary modern sculptures, and, then when you see them close up, you realize they are not fragments, they’re wholes—literally portraits of people titled by their names, Peter Hull and Jamie Gillespie (both 1999). They’re made of really white marble—from life casts. I made molds of them in my studio, and then I took the casts to Italy and worked with carvers in Pietrasanta (the center of Carrara marble) who did the carving.

R. J. Preece: Do you prefer to use certain materials over others at this point?

Marc Quinn: I use whatever material it takes to make the idea be realized. It depends on how things happen. For the marble sculptures, they had to be made in marble, not plastic or plaster. I like to use materials for their intrinsic and metaphoric content as well. These sculptures use material in a traditional way— I guess that’s why people used marble, because you can get this amazing luminousness. You use that to turn the thing inside out, to make a new form of expression, really.

R. J. Preece: Which materials are more difficult to work with?

Marc Quinn: The ice sculpture, Love is all around you (1999), is literally simple, but first you have to make the sculpture, make a mold, and then it takes two and a half weeks to freeze. Every day you have to drill holes into the middle to let the pressure out. It then weighs 600 kilograms, and you have to move it into the gallery from cold storage, keeping it frozen, and take the mold off it. At any point, the piece can break and you never know if you’ll get a good result until you get it. So, it’s necessarily nerve-wrecking.

R. J. Preece: You say it takes two and a half weeks— how did you find that out?

Marc Quinn: Trial and error. I just started to freeze it, and that’s how it worked out. But these sculptures disappear and that’s the idea of it.

R. J. Preece: So Love is all around you eventually melts away?

Marc Quinn: It doesn’t melt, it evaporates. Basically when you freeze-dry it, the sculpture evaporates. The water vapor moves invisibly from the sculpture to the cooling element in the refrigeration system, and it then gets defrosted and goes out into the gallery space. When you are viewing Love is all around you in the gallery, you are breathing in the artwork. You are literally taking it into your body, and it becomes you. So there’s a physical relationship between the sculpture and the viewer.

R. J. Preece: In addition to ice, you’ve used your own blood and excrement as materials. Are you comfortable working with them? Are you so used to them that they’re just materials?

Marc Quinn: You have a different relationship to your own personal material than you do to other people’s. When you go to the bathroom, you’re not horrified and shocked. But if you walked in and found someone one else had just been, you probably would be. Your own relationship to these things is slightly different. It’s not like I’m making it with other people’s.

R. J. Preece: Thinking about Love is all around you and particularly about Reincarnate (1999), which captures a flower in full bloom, do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

Marc Quinn: No, I’d say a realist. You could say that, but you could also say that for them to last forever they have to be dead. So, there is a sense of beauty there, but it’s beauty at a price. Both sides are always present, but I think it is good to make beautiful things as well.

R. J. Preece: And you don’t see these as romantic?

Marc Quinn: I don’t know what you mean by romantic. I’d say that it’s pejorative, as obscuring the reality of life by cloaking it in veils of poetry. I think celebrating beauty is definitely something I like to do— if you call that romantic, then yes.

R. J. Preece: With the frozen flower, how did you technically do that?

Marc Quinn: When working with the frozen material, it’s like doing an experiment— different things come out of it. When you freeze something, it normally dries up. To avoid that, you have to stop the air from getting to the object. You can do this by casing it in something. Silicone is a material that is inert, so it doesn’t attack things chemically, but it also has the quality of remaining liquid to minus 50. So you can lower the temperature to minus 20, and it’s still a liquid. You drop a flower and it freezes instantly, and then the silicone protects it from the air. Basically, it’s just experimentation.

R. J. Preece: Will the flower piece last?

Marc Quinn: Yes, I have one that’s three years old.

R. J. Preece: So, when you did your research, did you have to figure this out yourself or did you consult?

Marc Quinn: I consulted, but you have to do it yourself because no one had done this before, and so no one really knows. You can talk to scientists about different materials, but it’s not a very usual approach that they’re being asked about.

This means that there is quite a long development period for some projects. It becomes quite expensive, but usually you get something out of it. I mean, I’ve built machines that have been disasters as well, but that’s part of the learning curve.

R. J. Preece: None of the previous writings on your work seem to talk about the scientific aspects of your artistic process or product. Does that seem curious?

Marc Quinn: Yes, I think it’s an interesting area. The meeting of science and art is definitely interesting for the 21st century, and I think to use scientific expertise and knowledge to preserve an artistic statement is very interesting. It takes things a step further.

I’m interested in the fact that within science, you’re dealing with properties of the real and physical world, and by using those properties you’re really getting more in touch with the basis of reality and using that expressively. So, you are kind of using the laws of physics to express ideas. I think this is very interesting.

R. J. Preece: Your father is a physicist, but do you have a science background?

Marc Quinn: Not really, but science is not that complicated. You’ve just got to get into it.

R. J. Preece: You have an art history background. Do you think that the way you think about art or talk about art is different from that of artists who may have fine arts training but a less thorough access to art history?

Marc Quinn: I guess quite a lot of my work has references to art history, but sometimes I think that this is really bad. It’s better to be pure and have no references. But the truth is if you know your context then you’re going to make more interesting stuff than if you just approach what’s already been done. People who think that art history is the last 50 years…

R. J. Preece: What would you cite as references, or threads?

Marc Quinn: I think different bits have different connections— you could say that the materiality has some connection to Joseph Beuys, but then there are things which are totally unrelated to that. I’m more interested in making connections with the real world than with art history, except when I’m using it as a given, a readymade in the viewer’s mind in a way. For instance, with the marble sculptures, everyone has a readymade in their minds about what a marble with no arms and no legs is. You’re then playing with the cultural given. Those pieces would be very different to someone who had never seen antique sculpture.

R. J. Preece: As an artist, do you ever question how art history is used as an explanatory tool? For example, the names used to contextualize your work include Piero Manzoni and Antony Gormley.

Marc Quinn: Yes. I don’t feel any relationship to them really. With Manzoni, I can see the relationship to shit, but I can’t see how there’s a relationship to Gormley at all; his work is all about a contained figure, and my work is the opposite of that.

R. J. Preece: Do you have any particular views about the writings on your work?

Marc Quinn: They’re pretty much universally uninteresting. There are very few good writers about art, and you either get art-fashion writing with trendy views or you get very traditional writing. Occasionally, you get people who can write in an interesting way. Really, I think in a sense art writing needs to be renewed as well. It’s in a pretty bad condition.

David Sylvester writes really well about an earlier generation of artists— there are no writers that I can see who write in an in-depth manner nowadays— it just seems light, and yet, unbearably plodding. However, it’s difficult to be an art writer or write about art. Where is your audience, and how do you reach them?

R. J. Preece: Are there any things that have been written about you that you disagree with? For example, I saw two reviews in The New York Times and TimeOut New York referring to your Gagosian gallery show, and I thought they were a little unfair.

Marc Quinn: Yes. They totally misunderstood— almost willfully— kind of inverting what it was all about. So, in a sense, art writing is also a sort of defining, excluding and including— not really talking about the work but creating a boundary of acceptability. It’s like saying, “This is okay, and this is not worth thinking about.” It’s like creating a kind of pale beyond which are the other things, and within which are those things that tend to exist in language.

R. J. Preece: Self, as you know, has become a powerful icon, and when there is writing about you and your work, it is often put in the forefront as a strong image. Do you have any views about the positioning of that one work, and how do you look at Self now?

Marc Quinn: Well, I think it’s a great sculpture. I’m really happy with it. I think it is inevitable that you have one piece people focus in on. But that’s really good because it gets people into the work.

R. J. Preece: Did you know this when you were making Self?

Marc Quinn: Yes, it seemed pretty radical.

See Marc Quinn interview: Focus on All of nature flows through us in 2015.