Self-made man

Art - Sue Hubbard on a man who takes apart conventional models of beauty and humanity

For a member of the brat pack of Young British Artists, someone who uses blood, shit and his baby son's placenta to make art, Marc Quinn is surprisingly quiet and serious when we meet on a rain-lashed day at Tate Liverpool for the opening of his new exhibition. Outside the gallery window, the Mersey forms a grey backdrop of storm-tossed waves. It's an image he likes: a vast amniotic soup slurping around as we talk about what he calls the age-old themes of art - life, birth and death. Indeed, Quinn might be a junior philosophy lecturer at some former polytechnic, rather than an artist. So it is no surprise to learn that he never went to art school, but studied art history at Cambridge. He can't be naive, then, I suggest, to the references that abound in his work. The blood, the pregnant women, the family must draw, intentionally, on traditional Christian iconography. "Of course," he mutters enigmatically.

Quinn first gained recognition in 1991 with his provocative sculpture Self, a life-size caste of his head made from his own frozen blood. This was followed in 1998 by the flayed bodies at the South London Gallery - part torture victims, part saints hanging from the ceiling, their skins peeled back like unzipped bananas. I kept thinking of a small boy looking inside a torch and taking it to bits to see how it works. Quinn's interest in science, in how things are made, in their intrinsic nature, is a legacy, no doubt, of having a physicist father. Although the work in the Liverpool show includes a wide range of media - drawing, sculpture, painting, photographs and installation - it is all concerned with exploring issues of procreation, perfection, decay and mortality. When his son Lucas was born, Quinn pureed the frozen placenta and poured it into a mould he had modelled of the baby's head. It sits in its refrigerated unit like a religious reliquary or a grizzled pope's head by Francis Bacon.

Genetic and generational bonds are also explored in the photograph of Quinn's son and his own grandmother, but less conventionally in DNA Garden and Family Portrait. Here, apparently empty stainless-steel frames (which conjure those Byzantine icons embedded in silver, or Christian Boltanski's photographic installations) actually hold polycarbonate agar jelly, bacteria colonies and cloned DNA (both plant and human). Virtually invisible, they act like biological photos (or rather negatives), as portraits of possibilities. Quinn tells me that he is really interested in matter and in the material world, as we are the first generation to be able to see the instructions for making ourselves.

He also freezes flowers. Eternal Spring (Lilies) I consists of a bunch of frozen blossoms. These draw on the tradition of 17th-century Dutch flower painting, in which loss of perfection and subsequent decay are reminders of our mortality, but they also make oblique reference to the work of the late Helen Chadwick, who explored similar territory. Quinn likes it that these pieces can exist only in a society with an infrastructure where refrigeration is possible - also true of that wish-fulfilment technology, cryogenics, which allows the rich and batty to be frozen after death "just in case".

One day, when in the British Museum, it suddenly occurred to Quinn that visitors looking at fragmented, limbless sculptures - ideals of classical beauty - would react very differently if they were looking at real people who were thus "disfigured". Both traditional and contemporary ideals of perfection are explored in his works made of white marble. Using disabled models as subjects, his sculptures challenge viewers' preconceived notions of what constitutes beauty and "appropriate" eroticism. Approaching the athletic male figure of his marble Kiss from behind, the torso looks like an example of heroic perfection. But his arms, in fact, have been deformed by thalidomide and his female partner has also lost one of hers. This is Rodin for a postmodern age.

The piece that will probably provoke the most predictable outcry is Quinn's Shit Painting, made from his own excrement. Actually, it looks like an American abstract expressionist painting of the 1950s. Quinn is not the first artist to use his faeces to make art. Piero Manzoni displayed his shit in small paint tins in the 1960s. Bodily fluids, for Manzoni as for Quinn, are metaphors for our humanity, our materiality and flux. It is our material make-up, the physical components that make us unique, which fascinate Quinn. His most enigmatic piece is Mirror Self-Portrait 2000, a looking glass in which he looked every day for 12 months. A mirror is, he says, "the ultimate indifferent object. It celebrates you while you are there and then when you are gone it forgets you immediately." No traditional vanitas painting could illuminate the fleeting nature of our material existence with greater potency.

"Marc Quinn" is at Tate Liverpool, Liverpool L3 (0151 702 7400), until 28 April

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals