Image above: Artwork © Marc Quinn. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby). Courtesy of White Cube Bermondsey, London.

Marc Quinn’s shimmering new artworks fill the vast spaces of White Cube in London’s trendy Bermondsey district.  But like all his works they are not just perfectly executed creations.  There is a subtext too.  “The Toxic Sublime”, his metallic wall-hung paintings, and “Frozen Waves”, massive stainless steel sculptures of seashells, are, he explains, a response to our impotent hand-wringing about the environment.

“They’re about people’s relation to nature, the Gordian knot of global warming.  We all sit at home doing nothing, destroying the world by just looking.  In such a world you have to celebrate a new kind of beauty - the beauty of destruction.”

Quinn, now fifty one, is a quiet soft spoken man, dressed in the international uniform of baseball cap and jeans.  One of the original YBAs (Young British Artists), he has been hugely successful, as the Bentley parked outside the gallery testifies.  He is perhaps best-known for “Self”, a self-portrait of his head cast in 10 pints of his own blood and kept permanently frozen.  (He makes a new one every five years.)  He also created “Alison Lapper Pregnant”, a marble sculpture of a heavily pregnant disabled woman which occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square from 2005 to 2007 and reappeared as a gigantic inflatable at the 2012 London Paralympics.  One version of “Sphinx”, a gold sculpture of the model Kate Moss in a yoga pose, legs twisted behind her head pretzel-fashion, is in the British Museum.  He has also created sculptures of transsexuals, one a woman with a penis, another a man with a vagina.  Compared to these works, many of which caused outrage when they first appeared, his new exhibition seems understated, even benign.  So is he mellowing?

“I never was controversial.  I just reflected the world,” he replies.  “Art should reflect the world in which the artist lives and still be able to talk to people in the future, like Egyptian sculptures speak to us now.  Art is a time machine, a 3D photo of now.  It’s like a palimpsest, a more accurate picture of the present than photo reportage can give.  It’s photo reportage plus ideas plus feelings.”

Even though the finished works are luminously beautiful, there is violence in the process of creation of “The Toxic Sublime”, the vast crumpled shimmering metallic “paintings” which line the walls of the gallery.  All are different but all originate in the same one photograph, a bucolic image of a sunrise, taken in the Caribbean.  “It’s a sunrise, not a sunset,” he says, “optimistic, the beginning of something, not the end of something.”  It’s also a view of the sea, inspired by J.M.W.Turner’s sublime seascapes, which Quinn admires.  In this day and age, however, when we can do nothing but helplessly watch the inexorable destruction of our environment, “you can’t do sublime any more.  You can’t make a painting of nature.”  Nevertheless he is, he adds, eternally on the look out for the sublime.  “The sublime is still there, like in a nuclear explosion.  Destruction can be beautiful.”

Marc Quinn The Toxic Sublime White Cube Bermondsey London 15 July - 13 September 2015 (medium res) 3

Image above: Artwork © Marc Quinn. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby). Courtesy of White Cube Bermondsey, London.

So he takes his sublime photograph, blows it up to gigantic proportions, prints it on canvas, then attacks it, vandalises it, obliterates it.

First he litters it with flotsam and jetsam, random items he’s found on the beach - a horse-shoe shaped gadget used for separating electric wires, screeds of industrial plastic cord - which leave intriguing shapes and images and traces of the original colour as he spray paints over it.  Then he takes the canvas out onto the street and uses a sanding machine to grind the impressions of drain covers and pavement into it, imprinting it with sewage hatches with the trademark “Thames Water”.  It is a reminder of the water which surges under our cities, forming our life blood, yet which is also a powerful untameable element which can burst out in the form of typhoons and floods just as we think we have harnessed it.

Finally he bonds his canvas to a sheet of aluminium and pummels, crumples and contorts it.  The finished works are sculptural hybrid objects which vary in tone from pinks, yellows, blues and greens to an all over silver and each has a shiny metallic strip across the middle forming a horizon, turning the image back into a seascape - a post-apocalyptic one.  They are themselves like flotsam and jetsam, remnants from some cataclysm, the detritus of our modern age, inexplicable metallic objects left behind by a civilisation which has destroyed itself, the sort of thing that Charlton Heston might come across as he staggers along the seashore in “Planet of the Apes”.  This is indeed Quinn’s concept.  He was working on the series when Malaysian Airlines MH370 disappeared, followed by the shooting down of flight MH17.  He thinks of these works, he says, as “found things, like those bits of debris from Malaysian Airlines’ flights - debris from now.”

The Toxic Sublime is, he says, all about human intervention in nature.  He sees his sculptures, conversely, as primordial animals.  He dubs them “Frozen Waves” and they are almost abstract - sensual objects, ancient, primeval, evoking waves or fishes.  Rough on the outside, they are mirror shiny on the inside.  You can see yourself reflected in them.

They are actually casts of shells, images of mutability, caught at the very moment when the shell is about to dissolve back into sand.  At that moment, says Quinn, the shell takes on the shape of a wave.  Only the thickest part is left in the shape of an arch.  Quinn takes tiny beautiful shells, scans them, blows them up to monumental proportions, makes an object using 3D printing, then casts them in industrial stainless steel.  It can take a month for the larger ones to print and he enjoys watching them emerging from the tank of liquid “like the creature from the black lagoon”.

Marc Quinn The Toxic Sublime White Cube Bermondsey London 15 July - 13 September 2015 (medium res) 1

Image above: Artwork © Marc Quinn. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby). Courtesy of White Cube Bermondsey, London.

There are also sculptures of conch shells.  He points out the holes in them “where humans have taken the animal out to eat, which was the beginning of human intervention in nature.”

He muses about the potential of 3D scanning.  “It’s the new photography, the photography of the future,” he says.  “It will affect culture in the same way that photography did at the beginning of the twentieth century.  It’s one of the most important changes in object making.  It’s an image of the world.  Like photography it’s captured with light.  The computer information that you get by scanning the object with light is the negative, the object is the photograph and the process of 3D printing is like the dark room.”

So perhaps for Quinn there is a future, a spin-off from his “Gordian Knot”, generating new ways to describe it:  3D scanning, the “new photography”.

by Lesley Downer


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