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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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