Time out of mind: “All art was once contemporary art,” says Quinn, whose practice draws on a rich history spanning ancient Greece, Turner and India. Photo: Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Marc Quinn: “You can’t be Turner in the age of global warming”

The artist on Kate Moss, time travel and life after the YBAs.

It is slightly unnerving finally to meet Marc Quinn in the flesh when I have met him several times over the years in the blood. Self (1991), the cast he made of his head using ten pints of his own frozen blood, was his introductory piece and this black-pudding self-portrait – not just showing the self but literally of the self – has become one of the defining images of the Young British Artist generation.

In person Quinn looks little older than his chilled early-1990s incarnation, a cross between William Blake (a copy of whose life mask sits in his studio) and Nick Hornby. That first blood sculpture was the beginning of a series; Quinn makes a new one every five years and there are now five of them in public and private collections dotted around the world, each stopped from deliquescing by being kept at -18° C. There are ten pints of blood in each head because, he points out, that’s “the same as in my whole circulation. So there are now 50 pints outside of me and I still exist.” Should he live to, say, 86 (he’s 51 now), there will be another seven of them, or 70 pints. “The great show would be all of them in one room.” As it is, he sees the existing heads not as memento mori but as “markers of having made it so far – of still hanging on in there. Essentially, I’m optimistic about the world.”

There is another year to go before the next ten pints are drawn (the blood is taken from his body over a period of five months), so Quinn currently looks in the pink. Another reason, perhaps, is his new exhibition, “The Toxic Sublime”, at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, London. It is his first major show in Britain for several years and when we meet at his studio-office in Clerkenwell – the home patch of the capital’s creatives (although he points out that he was there before most) – some of the pieces are still being finished. It is an enviable place to work: a series of white, naturally lit rooms on two levels that seem impossibly large, given the building’s unprepossessing street frontage. The visitor walks into a display-storage area that could be a commercial gallery; downstairs is Quinn’s office, full of piles of art books, artworks (Indian and European) and bric-a-brac including a humidor; through a kitchen and up some stairs is the studio.

“The Toxic Sublime” contains both sculptures and a series of large hybrid works that started off with a photograph of sunrise over a beach “somewhere in the Caribbean” (Quinn has a house there – as well as one in London – which he shares with his wife, the children’s author Georgia Byng). The photograph was enlarged and printed on to canvas, covered in spray paint and the metallic tape used to patch up aeroplanes, then heavily worked over with a sanding machine, rubbed on drain covers in the street and imprinted with flotsam and jetsam, before being mounted on to sheets of aluminium, which were then creased and crumpled like paper. These variations on a steam-punk sunrise are pictures with a third dimension.

The sculptures are more straightforward. Quinn scanned the curved fragments of eroded shells that he had found on the beach and enlarged them with a 3D printer, before casting them in stainless steel. The largest is nearly seven-metres long and mixes the roughness of degrading matter with highly polished areas. These transmuted shell fragments look like waves, says Quinn, and they have the same fascination: it is, he points out, psychologically impossible not to pick up shells from a beach and, as we walk round these huge, textured versions, he quotes Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand . . .”

“The Toxic Sublime” is, he says, about “the impossibility of being Turner in the age of global warming”. Because of man’s malign effect on nature, these seascapes are not pure in the way that Turner’s sea pictures are. In all those rubbings and grindings, Quinn is “taking the texture of the streets – I’m an urban artist – and applying them to the clash between nature and the human”.

Marc Quinn's Self (1991). Blood (artist's), stainless steel and refrigeration equipment. © Marc Quinn

He chuckles as he recalls that while he was on the road outside, attacking the canvases with a sander, “People just walked by. No one ever commented. No one engaged in a conversation.” Would he have liked them to? “Not really.” What if people don’t engage with the finished works? “I would feel irritated. But I feel happy with them and that’s all I care about. Though my bank manager would mind if no one likes them.” Not that his bank manager should be too concerned, since Quinn’s prices are formidable: the original Self, for example, was bought in 1991 for £12,000 by Charles Saatchi, who sold it in 2005 to the hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen for £1.5m.

The new work is very different from both Self and the other piece that made him famous (or infamous), the 12-tonne marble sculpture of a pregnant Alison Lapper, the artist who was born with deformed legs and no arms, which was on display in Trafalgar Square from 2005 to 2007. This, the first of the revived Fourth Plinth commissions, was also the most controversial: while some critics thought it an affirmation of physical disability, others found it unseemly. A 35-feet-tall inflatable version, Breath, was the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Quinn is unlike his YBA peers in that he read art history at Cambridge rather than going to art college and I wonder if that makes a difference. “It must have done,” he says. “I invented the way I work.” Does he draw? “Yes, I draw.” Well? “Quite well.” Was the time he spent with Barry Flanagan, the sculptor of ecstatic hares, useful? “That was just six months between school and university, really just hanging out. He mostly taught me how to drink – a life lesson.” It was a lesson he learned all too well and consequently had a running battle with alcohol before eventually going into rehab in the early 1990s and giving up drink altogether.

When I ask whether he has ever felt the lack of an art training, he counters, “No, not really. The cave painters of Lascaux didn’t go to art school.” Art history, though, remains important to him. In the new works, he says, “Turner, Friedrich, Courbet, Constable, Rothko . . . All these were in my head. They are conscious presences, in that I love these artists. But how could one make a painting like theirs nowadays? Art should be like a piece of glass that reflects in all different ways. Although you don’t have to know about the history of art, it is important to me that my work has a provenance.”

This is evident in all of his work: the Lapper sculptures look back to limbless Greek statues; the series showing Kate Moss in contorted yoga positions with her legs behind her ears (one version, Siren, is said to be the largest gold statue since those of ancient Egypt) was inspired by Indian Chola figures; the blood heads nod at Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Yet historical awareness is not the same as nostalgia or being backwards-looking. “All art was once contemporary art,” says Quinn. “Art is about the time you live in but it is also about communicating with people in the future. Art is a type of emotional time machine. I don’t have a future – or current – viewer in mind but it is definitely for people in the future (though maybe it will all have been chucked in the bin). I hope what I make is about now.”

The Kate Moss sculpture, for example, “was never a sculpture of Kate Moss the person but of the abstraction we have all decided is the most perfect person in the world”. She is a celebrity, a modern Chola deity: “We create this image of a perfect person and then we forget it is invented. We begin to measure ourselves against it, even though the real Kate Moss is nothing like the picture of Kate Moss you see.” They remain friends. “It’s about wanting so much something bigger than you that you forget that you’ve created it and start to beat yourself up for not measuring up to it.”

I wonder if he measures himself against his fellow YBAs in the same way? He denies the competitive urge and has fond memories: “I was part of a group of people who were all making art at the same time – an exciting time. But it was all about individual artists, really, although there was a connection. It was the first new explosion that changed the art world in Britain since the 1960s with Hockney and the [Royal College of Art] and all that. What you’ll remember, though, is who were the good artists.”

Who, I ask, are the good artists? Disappointingly, he resorts to diplomacy: “I like lots of my contemporaries. It’s too early to tell. You can see who is making good art 25 years later. Being successful is one thing but continuing to be successful – and I don’t mean financially – is the most difficult thing.” I immediately think of Damien Hirst as someone who has conspicuously failed this test but Quinn refuses to be drawn.

What is his recipe for continued success? “I keep thinking my next artwork will be my best one,” he says. “I can now make whatever I want and with that comes responsibility. I have to keep pushing myself.” Part of the responsibility is that he has six or seven people working for him (“They are mainly in the administrative side of things and then two or three people who help me make things”). While he might measure success in terms of fulfilment, they rely on his success for a living. “I don’t think about the responsibility. The contemporary art world and money is a double-edged thing . . . I think a lot of the art that one can see in museums was once speculated on. It can warp people’s perspective. It can fill museums with stuff that isn’t important. You look back and think, ‘Ah, God, they’re so stupid. How could they have chosen that?’ But it is still happening now.”

What’s in Quinn’s favour is that he’s an optimist, which is why he chose a sunrise rather than a sunset for the new works (“Then you have the whole day ahead of you”); that making art is a compulsion; and that he has “never had artist’s block”. In his view, “The whole idea of being an artist is to evolve and change. It has got to be fun for me.” So his evolution will, he hopes, continue, while there’s still blood in his veins.

“The Toxic Sublime” is at the White Cube Bermondsey, London SE1, from 15 July to 13 September

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis