Marc Quinn

Grob Gallery

Self (both works 1991) is a frozen cast of Marc Quinn’s head made from the artist’s blood. By planning the form of the mold to include most of his neck, Quinn insured that the volume of blood needed to completely cast the form would equal roughly eight pints—the total blood volume of an average adult male. The blood collection process occurred over the course of five months; afterwards it was a relatively simple matter to “cast” the piece by freezing. The bust is displayed in a double-glazed Plexiglas enclosure that sits atop a stunning high-tech refrigeration unit, complete with digital temperature readout informing us that the piece is being maintained at a cool minus seven degrees centigrade. The surface of this solid mass remains surprisingly active, however, even though it is thoroughly frozen and virtually hermetically sealed. In just a few weeks’ time dramatic color changes transformed the bust from a rich, deep red, resembling cassis sorbet, into an inert mottled shade. The icy finality of death never looked better.

The second major work of the exhibition, May–September, 1991, effectively moderated the high sacrificial theatricality of Self with the introduction of a note of homely humility. Consisting of several hundred hands made of bread dough, these wall-mounted relief sculptures, arrayed in an informal overall pattern, represented the harvest of a daily ritual performed in conjunction with the blood-collection routine. Each hand is formed from the artist’s, palm-upwards, and is etched with Quinn’s palm lines prior to baking. The process of baking deforms the hand, giving it the bloated look typical of decomposing corpses. At the same time, the palm print looks fairly iconic; the deeply etched furrows make a satisfying symbolic counterpoint to death, referring as they do to palmistry, the “future,” and “fate.” This latter field of associations seems to hold at bay more sardonic resonances that erupt spontaneously throughout the wall display—owing to the fact that Quinn often overbakes his dough. May–September, 1991 recalls Quinn’s earliest works, which are also figurative sculptures in bread dough . One work, constructed on an armature and based on Edgar Degas’ famous The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, 1879–81, also suffered deformation into horribly bulbous, crusty masses through baking. Unlike May–September, 1991, it was subsequently cast as an edition of bronzes.

Quinn’s extremely theatrical, almost “heroic” use of such a spectacular body fluid as blood is obviously calculated to invite a multitude of readings, making reference to a cornucopia of familiar humanist literary meditations on mortality, the fragility of life, and existential anxieties both high and low, not to mention the tragicomedy of cryogenic preservation of the dead and the sometimes faddish, sometimes serious, investigations of the “body” as a social construct. For Quinn, the great humanist debate regarding the nature of the individual seems to be best dealt with using biology in confrontation with poetry; where science and art clash, the result is an existential experience haunted by the sense that neither science nor art alone is strong enough to heal that rift, though in concert they embody that divide.

An entire decade of recent art has been legitimized in the name of the Duchampian ideology, and it is likely that we are already experiencing the beginning of the end of a period in which artists like Quinn feel obliged to disguise their “purer” sensibilities in a web of semiotic mystification—to restrict or suppress their notions of the expressive and authentic. Yet, in a depressed art market currently overrun with physically and ontologically inconvenient art forms, one would expect that even that reaction will have to be tempered subtly towards a more acceptable mix of intuition bounded by conventionality. Quinn demonstrates, perhaps unintentionally, that even the most potentially recalcitrant of art materials can be brought to heel.

Michael Corris