In 1991, Marc Quinn cast a self-portrait head in his own frozen blood—eight pints of it—a move that was nearly as sensational as and somewhat more profound than fellow YBA Damien Hirst’s preserved shark and cross-sectioned cow. “It was an idea frozen into its own life support system,” he told Neville Wakefield in a recent interview. Among
Quinn’s subsequent works—having to do with inside and out, interior state and external appearance—were cast latex sculptures of his own body that were like flayed skins, and a garden of real flowers frozen in silicon. Nothing was quite as iconic or startling as Self, until now.
“The Complete Marbles” is a classical installation of staggering perfection. At first sight, it looks exactly like a hall of sublime white marble antiquities: 10 heroic, idealized nudes, male and female, standing or seated in classical poses on plinths. Roman copies of Greek statues, perhaps, or neoclassical Canovas. Conjuring an anachronism that reaches back to the mythic Greco-Roman core of Western civilization, Quinn’s throwback to the hallowed halls of the British Museum leaves our own weird new forms of radical conservatism in the dust. But something, you suddenly realize, has gone terribly wrong.
Take a closer look at the embracing couple at the entrance. Titled Kiss, the piece harks back to Rodin and the romantic Beaux Arts sculptors. It invokes all the obsolete clichés of beauty, perfection, and idealization. Marvel at its outmoded skill, until cruel reality sinks in. The male figure has stunted thalidomide arms. The female’s arm is normal but she has only one. Take a good look at the others too. Their truncated and missing parts aren’t due to the vicissitudes of time but are the result of accident, genetic defect, or iatrogenic calamity. Quinn exploits the romance of classical antiquity—which depends on the mutilations of time and the notion of loss—to confront us with our own avoidance of the horrific fragility of the human condition.
“If the Venus de Milo had arms, it would most probably be a very boring statue,” says the artist, who—shortly before he began this series—wondered why we gaze raptly at ancient statues with missing limbs but avert our eyes from real people in the same state. Instead of the perfection of incomplete statues, he heroicizes incomplete bodies—specific ones. These are portraits of actual people with missing, amputated, or deformed limbs, survivors of car crashes, motorcycle accidents, birth defects, or in the case of Selma Mustajbasic, a café bombing in Sarajevo. Three are athletes: Stuart Penn is a kickboxer; Jamie Gillespie, who lost one leg, is a runner. Peter Hull, born without arms or legs, won a gold medal for swimming in the Paralympics. The titles are simply their names.
“The Complete Marbles” is the toughest, most problematic show around. The peripheral issues that attach to these works are problematic too. One can’t help but think of our government’s image embargo on the coffins of dead soldiers arriving from Iraq, and of whether the same denial will greet the wounded soldiers when they emerge from rehabilitation hospitals. Quinn himself has remarked that New York since 9-11 is a city with a phantom limb. But one can’t turn these portraits of actual people into metaphors—whether for the traumas of our historical moment or our obsession with extreme makeovers, or for Britain’s culture of bodily unease, from the tortured, fleshy lumps of Francis Bacon and the scrofulous skin of Lucien Freud to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s hacked, Goya-esque figures.
It’s even problematic to note that Quinn isn’t the only one reverting to cold classicism. A couple of months ago, Danish artist Christian Lemmerz showed classically inspired white Carrara marble statuary at DCA with an equally wry title: “Dopo la Storia.” More violently mutilated than Quinn’s, Lemmerz’s figures—including a decapitated Adonis giving himself head with his own head, which had Michael Jackson’s features—were dismembered, eviscerated, overtly metaphorical, and defiantly undead.
Who did it first? Is it influence or coincidence? And does it really matter? No. The oeuvre of each artist leads with internal logic to the current work. If the form and material bear an uncanny similarity, their content and intent are quite opposite. Lemmerz, who once studied carving in Carrara, began his statues in 1997 or ’98. The first marble by Quinn, who starts with body casts, appeared a year later. But though they may well share artisans at the quarry in Carrara, Quinn tells me he never heard of Lemmerz. I believe him. He then comments on his own works with a remarkable lack of irony: “Even if they refer to the sculpture of the past, they seem to me to be about the future, which is about difference and diversity. They’re celebrations of difference and of the triumph of the human spirit. Heroes are people who conquer themselves and go on to lead full lives. We’re living in turbulent times. And we’re much more resilient and adaptable than we think.”