IN 2009, BRITAIN’S NATIONAL Portrait Gallery acquired Self by Marc Quinn. The museum’s press release described the work as “unconventional, innovative, and challenging.” That is an understatement. Self is made of eight pints of Quinn’s own blood, approximately the amount in an adult male body. It was extracted over a period of a year, then poured into a mold of the artist’s head and frozen. The blood head (or “bloody head” the tabloid press has called it) remains frozen in a Plexiglas case atop a stainless steel refrigeration unit.
The National Portrait Gallery’s Self is, in fact, Quinn’s fourth work in an ongoing project initiated in 1991 [see Plates 1 and 2]. Every five years, Quinn creates a new Self. These works document changes in Quinn’s appearance but also his abiding being. In both Self (1991) and Self (2006), the artist’s eyes are closed, his frozen features serene. Between the first work, made when Quinn was twenty-seven, and the most recent, at forty-two, signs of aging appear. His face becomes puffier, the lines around his eyes and mouth deeper. At his death, there will be a continuous record of Quinn’s life process; he has instructed that a Self be posthumously cast with the blood from his deceased body and a death mask made of his head.
Born in 1964, Quinn is of a generation of artists who came to prominence in the mid-1990s. Collectively, these artists, including Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger, and Rachel Whiteread, have been called the young British artists, or YBAs, a name that becomes increasingly ill-fitting as they enter their fifties. Like many YBAs, Quinn gained international attention through the 1997 exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s YBA collection, Sensation, in which he showed Self (1991).
If artists such as Quinn, Hirst, and Whiteread have anything in common besides their passports, it is an interest in the relationship between the mortal body and imperishable soul. Though it is often ignored, there is a distinct and intentional sacramental dimension to the methodology, themes, and forms of the work of many YBAs. Their way of art-making actualizes the matter of life and death, making the frailty and decay of our bodies visible and palpable: they practice an aesthetics of mortality.
The aesthetics of mortality has always had its detractors, particularly when it is applied to sacred themes. Its critics contend that there is an inherent impropriety in containing the transcendent within the impermanent, the infinite within the finite. Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which hangs in the Louvre, was refused by the church for which it was commissioned because it depicted the Virgin Mary as too vividly dead. Caravaggio’s painting was replaced by an acceptable, and sentimental, work by Carlo Saraceni, also titled Death of the Virgin, which shows her glowingly alive, seemingly incapable of dying.
One YBA whose work mostly stands outside this preoccupation with mortality is Chris Ofili. Although they are often grouped because of their provocative use of organic material, Quinn and Ofili’s respective approaches are more antithetical than similar. Nevertheless, comparing their methods illuminates both artists’ work. Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary has been called vulgar and offensive by some, but it can be seen in terms of an aesthetics of transcendence [see Plate 7]. While the aesthetics of mortality is concerned with human frailty and transience, the aesthetics of transcendence celebrates the potential transformation of, even ascension from, an abject state of existence. Self is rooted in an incarnational approach which embodies the immaterial in the material; Ofili’s methodology is shaped by an alchemical process which transforms dung into art.
It is noteworthy that the alchemical approach to art making, while potentially inspirational, is theologically rooted in a conception of creation as ignoble and in need of transformation. The alchemical process bridges the abject and ethereal; Quinn’s work engages neither the abject nor the ethereal. The alchemical method affirms a divide between God and creation and establishes distinctions between the sacred and the profane. Quinn’s art suggests a sacramental closeness between the sacred and material. In this method the future is already manifested in the present. Quinn describes the universe as interconnected on an atomical level at which particles move invisibly from one form of being to another. He imagines that the atoms that were once part of his body have become part of a tree or star. Therefore, on both a spiritual and chemical level, all of creation, from its greatest to its smallest entity, is indivisibly physical and metaphysical.
If Ofili is an alchemist of pachyderm ordure, Quinn’s approach is closer to that of a chemist. The son of a physicist, Quinn is interested in matter itself, for its own sake. The substance of life is the focus, and at times the very material, of his art. He says:
What is the emergent property called life, which occurs when a certain matrix of atoms are concentrated in given space? What is it to be alive and to know it, to exist only in this gravity, in this temperature…. To be born and to die, to interact with others…. To be a self-fueling organism, a living process…. To know that the atoms which make up our body will one day make up another…what is it all about? That’s what it’s all about.
Quinn’s method is one of inquiry rather than revelation. “Asking questions is the only way I can continue to work as an artist, and I like questions that don’t have answers but which can be asked in a million different ways,” he says. “I come up with what people call ideas, but they are not ideas, they are questions.” This distinction between ideas and questions is vital to understanding both Quinn’s art and the aesthetics of mortality. Rather than confidently asserting propositions about how life should be, Quinn’s approach is to set up conditions under which compelling questions can be more effectively posed. This provocative stance, inherent to the aesthetics of mortality, is part of what makes his approach problematic for viewers who look to art for confirmation of what they already believe.
Nowhere is Quinn’s creative imagination, sensitivity to material, and experimental bent more distinctly evident than in Self (1991), which has been the genesis of most of his subsequent work. Beyond its uncommon addition to the history of self-portraiture, the crux of Self (in all its incarnations) is that the works are biologically identical to their subject and that their condition is evidently temporal. If self-portraiture is the attempt to capture a person at a specific moment, Self extends both the matter of identity and temporality beyond pictoricalism into literalism and beyond. Self is and is not Quinn. A true image of Quinn, Self is not only a portrait of the artist; it is also his own biological substance. It is from this unity of appearance and being that Self’s incarnational ramifications emerge. In making Self, Quinn found that, as his work became increasingly personal and literal in its material form, it consequently and correspondingly became more universal and mysterious in the questions it raised. Using himself as his subject as well as his material, Quinn explores how the particulars of his own nature and experience partake in a state of human being.
Quinn’s two-part intention for Self is articulated in his description of the work as “a representation which not only has the form of the sitter, but is actually made from the sitter’s flesh”; and that “only exists in certain conditions, in this case being frozen, analogous to me, with a person being alive.” Although it began as Quinn’s artistic investigation into the limits of the inseparability of content, material, and form, as an ongoing project, Self became an inquiry into how the beauty and mystery of the human condition lies in its perpetual suspension between life and death.
The encasement and life-support system that keeps the blood head from returning to its liquid state is, visually and conceptually, essential. The encasement of the blood head gives it an ancient appearance, underscoring its reference to relics of deceased saints. (Those who find Self horrific should also shield their eyes from medieval depictions of martyrdoms and crucifixions.) The stainless steel case, which encloses the refrigeration unit, acts as a pedestal, placing the blood head at eye level, and the reflective Plexiglas case superimposes a ghost of the viewer’s own image over the head. This face-to-face encounter causes us to identify with the blood head on a visceral, neurological level.
At a carefully maintained temperature of -6 degrees Celsius, the blood head remains perpetually suspended between solid and liquid, life and death. A few days after it was made, Quinn noticed that the head had a dusty appearance: the refrigerated air was freeze-drying the blood. Left unchecked, the head would have dehydrated into powder. Although this dust-to-dust process might have had a certain poetic quality, it was not what Quinn wanted. He wanted the blood head to remain always the same, always vulnerable to change but never actually changing.
After consulting with chemists and doing some experimentation, Quinn discovered that surrounding the head with liquid silicone would seal and protect the blood from air. Silicone is colorless, transparent, has a low level of chemical reactivity, and remains liquid at -80 degrees Celsius.
Even with the protection of the liquid silicone, the frozen blood head depends on the life support of the refrigeration unit, which itself is contingent on electricity. There is an urban myth, which Quinn retells with such delight that one wonders if he wishes it were true, that the head melted into a pool when electricity was accidentally cut off during renovations to Saatchi’s kitchen—a fable widely reported by the British press. Quinn clearly enjoys the mythologizing of his work, but also the way the story emphasizes the fragile condition of Self as matter in a particular state, just as life itself can only exist under a specific and narrow set of conditions. “In the blood head what I like is that you take a liquid and, by changing its conditions of existence, i.e. the temperature, it becomes a solid. It is a very simple way of making a sculpture. And yet, unconsciously, you want [the blood] to revert to a liquid because you know it is a liquid. So, there is this tension.”
The contingent nature of Self raises questions about the human condition. Self is not cynical; it is an authentic and critical inquiry into the miraculous nature of life. The seduction/aversion dynamic is key to its beauty and power. Self is disconcerting because it touches on issues of life and death that we would like to keep at a distance. Self’s materiality gives these questions a raw immediacy; we feel them in our own bodies.
For some viewers, it is difficult to get past the fact that the work is made of blood—and Quinn’s work does take advantage of our natural unease. Although our lives depend on blood circulating through our bodies, we may not regularly see our own blood, or even be conscious of its movement. Blood outside of the body evokes woundedness, even death. As both an agent of life and, in the case of infectious diseases, death, blood is the matter of mortality. A marble bust would have implied immortality; Self is a portrait of mortality.
While Self can be startling, Quinn’s use of blood is not a shock tactic. The meaning of the work comes from the exchange between its material substance and its representational form. The work does more than conjure a passing thought in the viewer’s mind; its visceral nature challenges the viewer’s own personhood. This may be discomfiting, but it is not gratuitous. Responding to a question about the so-called shock value of his art, Quinn said to Robert Preece:
I just think that if you use materials that have an ability to communicate directly, you open up a channel and you can work through that. So you are using the power of materials. By “shock” I mean that somebody uses something for no other reason but to use it, whereas I would use it to make the work communicate a different idea more directly, not to use it for its own sake.
Quinn uses materials that are indispensable to his work’s specific meaning. In “shock art” the shocking material becomes the focus. Once the shock wears thin, there’s no content behind the veneer. Self’s material is a conduit by which Quinn draws our focus to the immaterial. As Quinn himself says, “Sculpture is about the rematerialization of the immaterial.” Being of one substance with it creator, one body and blood, Self is, in both its method and existence, also distinctly Eucharistic.
Although Self’s incarnational methodology is hardly disguised, the blood heads are not Quinn’s most evidently sacred work. After learning about the properties of liquid silicone, Quinn realized it could be used to create works that exist in a state of both—and neither—life and death. The Eucharist celebrates the paradoxical mystery of Christ’s life-giving death. In works such as Self, Eternal Spring (Lilies) I, and Garden, Quinn draws the presence of life out of a process of death.
In 1998, Quinn began to freeze live flowers, including sunflowers, roses, and lilies. As living organic material, already laden with art-historical, sacred, and mortal associations, these flowers would allow Quinn to do for the genre of still life what he had already done for self-portraiture.
Quinn found that while freezing a flower caused it to shrivel from dehydration, immersing a flower in liquid silicone would preserve it forever in immaculate perfection. Quinn is open about his spiritual intentions:
If you take a real flower and put it into the silicone, it immediately freezes. Obviously it dies. In that moment of immersion, it transforms from a real object into a sculpture of that object made from the same atoms that the real one had been made from. There is a magical transformation from reality into art, but it stays looking the same. For me, that is the purest form of sculpture. It is a miracle. It is like the transubstantiation or the ascension into heaven. Art is [the process of] transforming something before your very eyes.
I would argue that Quinn’s method is more similar to consubstantiation than transubstantiation. Transubstantiation suggests an alchemical process more akin to Ofili’s. Quinn’s flowers distinctly retain their literal, material, and mortal being while, at the same time, becoming an embodiment of eternal life and immaculate beauty.
In Eternal Spring (Lilies) I [see Plate 3], Quinn discovered that the flowers also needed to be protected from natural light, which causes them to discolor and decay. The white lilies were the most vulnerable; their perfection and purity was the most fragile. The elements of light and air, on which the living flower depended, had become poisonous to the frozen flower.
In Eternal Spring, Quinn placed a vase of flowers in liquid silicone encased above a refrigeration unit. Symbolic of the annunciation and the Virgin’s immaculate purity, the lily is also associated with death. In titling this work Eternal Spring, Quinn unites the symbolism of the flower with his own interest in death, resurrection, and eternal life. If spring is the season of botanical rebirth as well as the celebration of Easter, Eternal Spring gives material substance to a triumph of life, not over death but through death. In Eternal Spring and Garden, the death of the flower is the means to its symbolic eternal life. The mortal laws of nature are suspended by the creative power of resurrection, resurrection in, not from, the body.
Quinn’s use of botanical material as a motif of resurrection culminated in Garden, a cornucopia of nearly one thousand botanical specimens frozen in four aquariums containing twenty-five tons of liquid silicon at -20 degrees Celsius [see Plate 4]. The entire garden is housed in a walk-in stainless steel refrigeration case over forty feet in length. From the outside, Garden resembles a meat locker, a storage house for dead flesh; seen from inside, the sepulcher appears full of life. Within this frozen world, the flowers are protected from both air and natural light; they will remain as they are, so long as Garden is plugged into an electrical source.
While the immaculate and uncorrupted world of Garden seems as if it has always existed, its creation was an imperfect process. Garden took years of expensive research, experimentation, and consultation with engineers and botanists, as Quinn learned to employ materials in unprecedented ways. As a sculpture made in part of the biological material of flowers, Garden is, like Self, a unity of subject and substance. “The flowers, when they freeze, become pure image,” says Quinn. “They become an image of [the] perfect flower. Because in reality their matter is dead and they are suspended in a state of transformation between pure image and pure matter.”
Garden’s mortal focus is the coexistence, even the interdependence, of life and death. Garden appears immortal, yet it was created by a process of death. Garden is a death without decay; at the same time, within this artificial reality, these imperishable flowers will never grow. Quinn acknowledges this paradox: “Their perfection is really a dead thing and if you turn off the freezer, decay sets in, but of course when the rotting begins it is life reasserting itself.”
While its title evokes Eden, Garden’s perfection is not nostalgic. Says Quinn, “It’s like the Last Judgment of the vegetable world, with all of the plants emerging from the ground together.” While there are no weeds in Garden, the work contains flowers, vegetables, shrubs, and trees from Asia, Africa, and Europe, specimens which would naturally exist in different climates and bloom in different seasons. In Garden, we encounter a botanical impossibility. As a prophetic vision of paradise, Garden is a peaceable kingdom of flora. Instead of the lion and lamb lying down together, the banana tree and cactus, the tulip and chrysanthemum, the anthurium and sunflower bloom side-by-side.
Yet Garden is no botanical wonderland or freak show designed to amuse us into distraction from the realities of life and death. It directly incarnates questions of our own mortality. Behind the aquariums of liquid silicone, the walls are mirrored: we see ourselves transported into the garden. In fact, because the glass surfaces of the aquariums are also reflective, we see ourselves multiple times, at once within and excluded from the garden. Quinn notes, “We see ourselves in the Garden through a mirror, but we perceive ourselves as being in the real world.” Whereas Self attempts to collapse the space between appearance and reality, Garden, at least initially, constructs a tension between what we see and what exists.
The mirrored walls create a sense of infinity, with viewers transported into the expanding garden. Surrounded by a garden and mirrors, we are simultaneously extended in multiple directions. In Garden natural time and space are suspended; our experience is one of being both in and out of our bodies.
Although Quinn is mainly a sculptor, Garden became the impetus for several series of two-dimensional works. He produced eight pigment prints entitled Garden Squared, made from photographs that he took inside Garden. These photographs visually arrest the installation’s sacred stillness. Given the extensive theoretical writing on the relationship between photography and death, it is not surprising that Quinn would apply this medium to Garden. In these photographs there is a transference of temporality and mortality from the flower to the image. Photography stops the time that it captures; the photograph itself exists in time. The flowers in the photograph will never fade, only the photograph itself may fade.
Quinn also produced a series of Garden-inspired paintings with provocative, astronomical titles such as Ultraviolet Radiation, Dark Matter, and Hyper Nova. Uniting the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the flower, Ultraviolet Radiation suggests a universe that is simultaneously expanding and contracting in a defiance of natural spatial limits [see front cover]. Visually, Ultraviolet Radiation has pictorial space without measurable depth or vanishing point. The title also suggests something outside the spectrum of human sight. Like Garden and Self, Ultraviolet Radiation asks, “What life lies beyond mortal boundaries?”
Nine years before it acquired Self (2006), the National Portrait Gallery commissioned Quinn to create a portrait of Sir John Sulston, a Nobel Prize–winning biologist who participated in mapping the human genome. Sir John Sulston is a silver-framed plate of bacteria containing Sulston’s own DNA, suspended in polycarbonate agar jelly and sealed. (This is the method used in labs to preserve and read DNA strands.) If the seal were ever broken, the jelly would dehydrate and the DNA would degrade.
Quinn notes, “The DNA work is the abstraction of figuration. Any figurative sculpture is an abstraction of its real subject, which is the human body.… DNA is paradoxically more real than a sculpture because it contains the actual instruction to remake the person. It is an abstraction that is more real than figuration.” He adds, “I love the idea that something that looks just slightly kind of beige is in fact the most realistic portrait of somebody you could have because it contains within it the instructions to remake the whole person.”
As elements in Sir John Sulston, the reflective silver frame and the DNA operate differently. The DNA is both literal and specific; the mirror is pictorial and universal. This work brings the desire for immortality into relief with the present. The preserved DNA suspends time; the mirror is a constantly changing reflection of each transitory moment.
Subsequent to Sir John Sulston, Quinn has made DNA Family (a single mirror frame with four windows containing DNA of Quinn, his wife, their son, and Quinn’s stepdaughter) and DNA Garden. DNA Garden is a twenty-first-century altarpiece reliquary, containing seventy-seven plates of bacteria colonies containing the DNA of seventy-five plants and two humans, a man and a woman.
DNA Garden is a triptych inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s title is ironically joyful and optimistic: the work itself is a warning against the excesses of corporeal indulgence. Similarly, DNA Garden is both optimistic and cautionary. If, as a scientist, Sulston asks, “Can we map, and even redesign, the DNA structure?” Quinn asks, “What does it mean for us to map, and even redesign, the DNA structure?” Both the scientist and artist ask, “How far can we take this?” But in each case the meaning of the question is different.
In Britain, Marc Quinn may be best known for Alison Lapper Pregnant, a seated nude figure of a woman without arms and with severely truncated legs, who is eight and a half months pregnant [see Plate 5]. This nearly twelve-foot high marble sculpture (approximately five times life size) graced the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square from September 2005 to April 2006. The fourth plinth is a site for contemporary public art; Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo stood atop it in 1999 [see Image Issue 34].
Alison Lapper Pregnant demonstrates a fervency and distinctly personal investment that is often absent in the sometimes detached and cerebral work of other YBAs like Whiteread, who exhibited on the plinth in 2001. Since Quinn’s emotional connection with the subject matter calls forth a corresponding empathy in the viewer, Alison Lapper Pregnant makes some people uncomfortable.
Some critics have suggested, while striving not to come off as insensitive to the disabled, that the work lacks the necessary heroism to belong in the company of Admiral Lord Nelson, whose eighteen-foot statue stands atop a 151-foot column at the square’s center. Ironically, the Nelson sculpture may be the most famous representation of a disabled person in Britain. Wounded in battle, Nelson was blinded in one eye and had his right arm amputated, and the sculpture shows him with these wounds. The distinction between the Nelson statue and Alison Lapper Pregnant is that the former immortalized a deceased person and the latter mortalizes a living person. It may be this reminder of our mortality that is off-putting to some.
Alison Lapper Pregnant recognizes that the limits of the body do not define the boundaries of the person’s being. This work’s success and scandal depend in part on knowledge of Lapper’s own history. She was born in 1965 without arms and with shortened legs as a result of a medical condition known as phocomelia. The most common cause of phocomelia is a pregnant mother taking the sedative Thalidomide, a drug widely distributed in Britain and licensed by the government to combat morning sickness in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As many as ten thousand babies were born with birth defects as a result of Thalidomide worldwide. Abandoned by her mother at four months, Lapper grew up in an institution for disabled children. Overcoming these obstacles, she graduated with first-class honors in fine art from the University of Brighton. She lives independently, with her son, and supports herself through the sale of her art, which she paints by holding a brush in her mouth.
Alison Lapper Pregnant is an enlargement of a 1999 sculpture made from a body cast of Lapper. Quinn met Lapper while working on a project called The Complete Marbles, a series of marble sculptures of persons missing one or more limbs. Quinn described the impetus for these projects:
I was in the British Museum looking at the fragmented marble statues and all of the tourists were saying “these are so beautiful and fantastic.” I thought that if someone who actually had a body like that came in, they would all react in the opposite way. There is a dichotomy of what is acceptable in art and not in life.
Responding to classical sculpture, Alison Lapper Pregnant poses a distinction between perfection, as a conceptual abstraction, and wholeness, as a unified state of being. In Alison Lapper Pregnant, Quinn pursues this wholeness through a unity of content, form, and process.
Like Self, Alison Lapper Pregnant is a work whose material, as a medium of incarnation, is pivotal to its meaning. Quinn insisted on Italian marble rather than a synthetic or less permanent substance, and the work intentionally creates friction between its classical material and its non-idealized subject—a named, individual woman (rather than a Venus or a Victory) who is also a disabled person.
Unlike Self, whose process is evident and integral to its meaning, Alison Lapper Pregnant’s process is disguised. She arrives fully formed and complete. If Self demonstrates the struggle of a contingent form within the art-making process and, by extension, the fragile nature of the human figure, Alison Lapper Pregnant is about the triumph of the figure through process: this human form is serene and victorious. Quinn noted, “I didn’t want it to look like Rodin or Michelangelo where you get a sense of a form emerging from stone. I wanted it to be absolutely clean.” Alison Lapper Pregnant is carved from a single block of pure white marble, giving the sculpture an immaculate appearance. Although the work weighs more than thirteen tons, it is visually buoyant. The work itself triumphs through its material state.
The sculpture is carefully proportioned. Lapper sits upright without being unnaturally stiff. Her athletic torso is at a right angle to her legs, with her round belly acting as a pivot point. She is in a state of equilibrium. From the back and side, points of view that emphasize the uprightness of her pose, the figure reads as taller. From the front, our attention goes to Lapper’s swollen breasts and belly, and the sculpture appears heavier; we are more aware of her weight and that of the marble. Yet these two views are joined seamlessly. Quinn’s capacity to unify the noble elements of Lapper’s body is one of this work’s remarkable achievements and makes it a complete portrait. Lapper herself has said that she regards the work “as a modern tribute to femininity, disability, and motherhood. It is so rare to see disability in everyday life—let alone naked, pregnant, and proud. The sculpture makes the ultimate statement about disability—that it can be as beautiful and valid a form of being as any other.”
Alison Lapper Pregnant is not an expression of contempt for classicism. To the contrary, it finds its significance by participating in the history of figural sculpture. Quinn studied art history at Cambridge University, graduating in 1985, and his work proceeds from an affinity for history. Like a Judoka using his opponent’s strengths to his own advantage, Quinn employs the weight of history as leverage. He uses our experience of classical sculpture in fragment and acceptance of that fragment as beautiful. Of The Complete Marbles, he says, “At first, these pieces appear to be fragmentary modern sculptures. Then when you see them close up, you realize they are not fragments, they’re wholes.” How are the viewer’s thoughts transformed by this discovery?
Quinn described his own discovery: “As I made the series of works, I realized that they were also about what a beautiful body is and how narrow our vision of that is, and about the connection between inside and outside.” For Quinn, the body’s true beauty arrives when its invisible, transcendent self and its mortal body form a complete whole. Quinn’s art neither separates the body and soul nor privileges one over the other. In fact, he seems to continually work toward a unity of the external and internal self. While we experience this body-soul bond as threatened and contingent, Quinn’s art pursues a fragile equilibrium. In interviews conducted with models for The Complete Marbles, Quinn discovered that the people born without limbs nevertheless perceived themselves as whole. Even those who had lost limbs through amputations or accidents came to see their new bodies as complete. The Complete Marbles asks what it means to be whole-bodied.
Alison Lapper Pregnant is a kind of double portrait. “Most monuments are commemorating past events,” Quinn says. “Because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity.” Quinn is a sculptor of time, and Lapper is both present and future. Most classical sculpture depicts the body as changeless; a pregnant woman is necessarily in a state of metamorphosis.
In 2000, Lapper gave birth to a son named Parys, and Quinn made a sculpture of them together [see Plate 6]. In 2008, he produced a similar, larger work entitled Mother and Child (Alison and Parys). If Alison Lapper Pregnant encourages us to see completeness in the body of a disabled woman, the seven-foot Mother and Child represents the fulfillment of promise. With the birth of Parys (who has all his limbs), the potential held within Alison Lapper Pregnant is realized.
The title Mother and Child alludes to the Virgin Mary and Christ. Parys’s arms are open and extended to the viewer, emphasizing that he has arms, but also echoing representations of Christ, particularly in Last Supper paintings, who stretches his arms wide, palms up, in a sign of offering himself. Mother and Child’s reference to Christ’s incarnation, and perhaps also to his death and self-offering in the Eucharist, alludes to the fulfillment of another promise, one made in the Garden of Eden at the very dawn of the broken world that made genetic disability possible. This promise was that one day creation would be restored.
Mother and Child is one of the most artistically complex and theologically profound representations of Mary and Christ in the art of our century’s first decade. Showing us the Virgin Mary in the form of a disabled person may cause some viewers as much discomfort as Caravaggio’s depiction of her dead and swollen body did in 1606; however, the incarnation is only meaningful because of our mortality. If we were immortal, as some so-called Christian art would have us believe, we would not need an incarnate God.
Although Self, Garden, and Mother and Child are expressly and intentionally connected, both thematically and aesthetically, to the history of Christian art, Quinn is not, in the main, a religious artist. Of the young British artists, by comparison, Damien Hirst is more deliberately and consistently engaged with the doctrines and practices of Christianity. Nevertheless, Quinn’s oeuvre often applies Christian motifs, iconography, and forms as metaphors to pose questions about the human condition and to celebrate the dignity of mortal experience. He does not shy away from our broken estate, yet his artistic project, taken as a whole, is characterized by a sense of an abiding sacred presence. In a New York Times review, Bridget L. Goodbody writes that Quinn’s art, “cleverly negotiates two contemporary sentiments about the human spirit, vacillating between ‘you live and then you die’ and ‘God is within.’” Although Quinn clearly recognizes the power of death, I do not see fatalist pessimism in his art. Though the extensive literature on Quinn’s art contains little to nothing on what he believes about God, the questions his work poses—and the way he poses them—draw me into a closer communion with God.
Quinn’s art is a celebration of life. This exaltation is not a removal from our human experience but an affirmation of the value of its full range, not only its pretty, happy, and comfortable parts. “I think that it is important to make art that is about now and not art that could be made at any time in the world,” Quinn says. “To me, that is what is interesting about the whole group of artists that came up around the same time as me…. The one thing that links everyone is bringing real life back into art. I think that was what was needed in art.”
Some critics have found that Quinn ultimately fails in his effort to affirm life, as do his young British artist contemporaries. Nigel Halliday’s 1997 review of Sensation for the Christian magazine Third Way sums up a frequent response: “The exhibition leaves you…desperate for someone to say something positive about being human, wishing that these artists could find that there is an answer to some of their questions.” Quinn’s question-oriented method may never satisfy those who want authoritative answers, but his approach to art-making is distinctly sacramental. Equally emphatic in their use of corporeal substance and their uncanny sense of presence, his works are palpable manifestations—even incarnations—of the state and fact of human being. Although certain critics have dismissively equated the aesthetics of mortality with a nihilistic aesthetic of death, Quinn demonstrates that it is also an aesthetic of life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.