London

Marc Quinn

South London Gallery

Self-portrait sculpture is conspicuous for its relative absence from art history. Though casting from life flourished as a genre during the Italian quattrocento, only in this century has self-portrait sculpture been given serious consideration. Until the early 1900s, for example, the celebrated collection of artists’ self-portraits in the Uffizi consisted entirely of paintings. The great Neoclassical sculptors Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen both carved self-portrait busts, but only Canova made it into the Uffizi collection, because he depicted himself on canvas.

British artists have been particularly active in the recent efflorescence of the genre. Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn have used casts of their own bodies as the starting point for many of their sculptures. Not that they would necessarily regard their effigies as conventional assertions of selfhood. Despite their undoubted differences—Gormley is slim and Apollonian; Quinn is plump and Dionysian—the work of both centers on the suffocation, multiplication, and loss of self.

Quinn’s recent exhibition of thirteen new sculptures, which were made in a wide variety of materials and sizes, was the largest display of his work in the UK to date. He turned the big, airy exhibition space into a claustrophobic mix of gymnasium and abattoir, with some pieces suspended from the ceiling and others hugging the floor. The largest sculpture, Across the Universe, 1998, confronted the viewer at the entrance to the space. This piece consisted of a full-length life-cast of the artist that had been executed in ice and sealed in a glass-and-stainless-steel refrigeration unit. During the course of the exhibition, as the ice gradually evaporated, the water vapor entered the atmosphere through an extractor. After three weeks, the corpulent body had slimmed down and become wraithlike and hieratic, with a bulbous Henry Moore head and a flat, Gormleyesque stomach. This mise-en-scène suggested a parody of the traditional notion of sculpture as a shape lurking in a marble block, waiting to be released by the sculptor’s chisel. Here there was no essential form to be laid bare, nothing that might survive this casual dissolution.

The most alarming sculptures were the floor pieces, which deftly combined farce and pathos. Spherical Morphology, 1997, was made from silver and glass fashioned to resemble large drops of mercury spilled on the floor. Looking closely you discerned Dalíesque biomorphs containing traces of the artist’s upturned face and hands. The most obvious source seemed to be the liquid-metal predator from Terminator II, but Quinn’s sculpture is more than simply ghoulish—suggesting a person who is not quite floating, not quite drowning.

The three versions of “Study for Approaching Planck Density,” 1997–98, were equally beguiling, but more aggressive. The title of these works refers to the astrophysical term for the density of the inside of a black hole. Quinn made the sculptures from wax body-casts, which he placed in a hot bath and then squashed on the floor. The remains were left to cool, then cast in lead. These crumpled tondos might best be described as existential cowpats.

The only work in the show that was not cast from life was Eternal Spring (Sunflowers, I & II), 1998, a pair of refrigeration units containing sunflowers that were frozen when their blooms were at their peak. This piece seemed to make an ironic reference to Van Gogh, the most anguished self-portraitist of them all.

James Hall