Marc Quinn – Sculpture between living and dying


Sculpture, perhaps more than painting, has functioned for centuries as the chosen medium for poltical and public art in a very precise way. When something has to be remembered, the commissioning of monuments and memorials can set it, quite literally, in stone, a marker for what has been lost or given up. History and myth, however, add to this commemoration of loss a second one : like the Tower of Babel, man’s constructions are an affront to the gods, who can only be appeased by a sacrifice. There is a continuum from the ancient instances of human sacrifice in the foundations of a building to the fictional scenarios of today, from Ibsen’s ‘Master Builder’ to Greenaway’s ‘Belly of an Architect’ in which the craftsman pays for his creation with his life.


This principle of sacrifice runs like a thread through the varieties of artistic production, where the work functions to mollify what each artist has situated as their dark god. This motif can be interpreted in a number of ways. On one view, the artist, or a part of the artist, must be given up in order to ensure their continued life in their work. Eternalised in their production, the living body of the artist becomes a residue to be discarded or disappear. This tension between the work and the living body has been questioned, however, in more recent art, if one thinks, for example, of the potted excreta of Manzoni or the blood sculptures of Marc Quinn.


With the inclusion of the artist’s body in their work, it is no longer possible to frame a hard and fast distinction between animate artist and inanimate work, even if the theme of sacrifice, of a giving up of part of the body, remains constant. Where Marc Quinn’s earlier work engaged quite directly with these questions through the use of body fluids, his newer pieces approach the issue of life and death from a different perspective, what we could call, to borrow a term from both Christian and psychoanalytic thought, the theme of the second death.


If there is a death in the real, biological sense of the extinction of the organism’s life, there is also a second death, a mortification, that has been imagined by culture in a number of ways. We could see this in the idea of the death of the soul in religious thinking, separated from the death of the body, and resulting in the doctrine of a dual ressurection. Or, in the sense of the mortification that is imposed on us by the dominion of images that capture and captivate us, the prime example of which would be the mirror image of our bodily form that we assume even before the mastery of our motor functions (1). Thirdly, there is the death which results from the imprints of language, the fact that we are born into a world of symbolic systems which are not tailored to our own specificity. Since this symbolic world moulds and represents us, we lose part of ourselves in an alienation which is structural to speaking beings.


With this third interpretation, we might choose to frame the distinction between artist and works in terms of the two deaths : the biological entity is extinguished, and their works circulate in culture as a representation or sign, in a kind of perpetual alienation. But Quinn’s work challenges such an interpretation. What he suggests with these new pieces is a study of the zone in between the two deaths, a zone where the limits of life and death are no longer always clear, and which reminds us of our split between them. Although the first, biological death is evoked for us, and our alienation in images and symbols is alluded to powerfully, Quinn focuses on the intermediate points where we are, in a literal sense, caught in between.






Our capture in the visual image is brought home immediately in ‘Continuous Present’. We see ourselves reflected in a steel cylinder, the curvature distorting and elongating the familiarity of the body. In contrast to this register of visual distortion and incompleteness, a skull rotates gently around the cylinder’s base, caught both by the reflecting surface of the cylinder and by our own gaze. The juxtaposition of motifs here calls to mind the anamorphoses so popular in sixteenth and seventeenth century art, with its frequent use of both the reflecting surface and the death’s head. And it is difficult not to see Quinn’s work here as a kind of modern version of the flower of anamorphic art, Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, both of them bringing together the image of the body, a skull and the optical effect of disortion.


In Holbein’s famous painting, two men face us, detailed and well-defined, surrounded by the objects of vanity. In the foreground of the picture is a greyish, floating mass, and it is only when we move to a point oblique to the picture plane that we see it in focus as a skull. This conceit, once voguish, has at least two functions. Firstly, to remind the viewer of the reality ( of death ) beyond the veil of the vanities, and secondly, to demonstrate that there is always something that we are unable to grasp in the field of vision. When we see the ambassadors sharply, we cannot see the skull, and when we see the skull, the ambasadors become blurred. The same technique that made the figures so precise, the use of central perspective, is also what renders the skull unseeable, with the drafting of the perspective lines at an angle oblique to the plane.


The device shows us how our own look is constitutive of visual space, of reality. A blur will suddenly become something recognisable depending on where our own look is situated, our own positioning in visual space. The implication is that our realities are built up through our own particular points of perspective. But also, as Lacan pointed out, that reality can look back, in the form of the death’s head whose hollow eye sockets fix us (2).


Quinn’s ‘Continuous Present’ reinvents Holbein : instead of seeing the skull initially as a blur, it stays crisply in focus, whereas the reflected image of the viewer is distorted. And whereas the skull in Holbein seems two-dimensional, crushed against the picture plane like some medieval portrait, Quinn’s skull occupies the same physical space as the viewer, situated outside the smooth curvature of the cylinder. Our own bodies, to the extent that they fill three-dimensional space, find their echo in the death’s head, while the recognisable features of ourselves, our body image, remains in the register of the two-dimensional image, flattened, elongated and captured by the reflecting surface.


Holbein’s conceit is thus inverted. Rather than seeing the death’s head as the reality latent to the body image, Quinn’s sculpture situates the body image as the reality latent to the death’s head, questioning the space between two deaths, that of visual capture and that of biological mortality. The ghostly, floating image is not a skull but, on the contrary, the stretched out, tiny form of the human body. This twist tells us something about the changing status of the body, indicating the disassociation of the image from the real of the body which is so much a feature of contemporary civilisation, with its sustained efforts to anchor us to our body image.


We can see this not only in contemporary obsessions with physical fitness and gym visits, but also in the way in which the question of personal identity, so long associated with the stability and framework of the body image, has shifted. The changes in society’s construction of  a problem like Alzheimer’s illustrates this. We often, and regrettably,  hear it said of an Alzheimer’s sufferer that ‘they are no longer themselves’, or even that ‘they are no longer a person’. Although the body image stays the same, the criterion of personhood has become displaced from the visual regsiter to the register of memory. If you can’t remember, or can’t maintain a continuity of memory, you lose your selfhood. The body image thus becomes contingent, secondary.


The contrast of Quinn’s piece and the Holbein work allows us to pursue another theme evoked by the visual image : the question of desire. For Holbein, the death’s head reminds the viewer of the vanity of worldly objects of desire. Both, however, are situated at the level of the image, the difference being marked by the redrafting of perspective lines in the anamorphic effect. In Quinn’s piece, he uses the disparity of the two-dimensional image and the ineffable, bodily presence of the skull to index this incompatibility. If our desire tends to focus itself in the visual register, – ‘the appetite of the eye’ – and if the body image has a privileged place here, the death’s head works to collapse the vanity of the image. Like the plastic object at the bottom of the cereal packet or the image beneath the food on a children’s plate, it shows that desire runs up against an undisgestible residue. Just as at the limit of the series of demands for food, there is something we cannot eat, so in the visual register there is a leftover, something that cannot be reduced purely to the space mapped out by the form of the body image.





‘Continuous Present’ reinvents a classical motif, inverting the traditional symmetry of life and death. The eight marble figures ‘Peter Hull, Selma Mustajbasic, Jamie Gillespie, Alexandra Westmoquette, Tom Yendel, Catherine Long, Stuart Penn, Helen Smith : Group Portrait’ continue this project of reinvention. After the distortions of the image in the ‘Ambassadors’ piece, the sight of marbled bodies offers the promise of completeness, of symmetry and ideal form. The antique resonance evokes the solidity and definition of body, but the use of classical medium refuses to deliver what we expect. Quinn’s work here gives a special inflection not just to questions of the body but also to the status of the art object itself.


If the ‘Mona Lisa’ is no longer a painting but the symbol of painting in popular culture, what is it that symbolises sculpture in a similar way? The armless figure of Venus might be the best example, indexing as it does both sculptural production and art itself, an emblem of what is civilsed and distinctly human. Yet this privileged image has its paradoxes : an armless, fractured, incomplete figure is symbolising classical sculpture, with its emphasis on completeness, symmetry and ideal form. The symbol of the arts, the emblem of what divides nature and culture, is not the whole human figure, but the partial one. It is thus lack that divides the two fields, as we see in the split between the human and the animal kingdom in general : doesn’t an animal only start to become human when it is lacking something, when it has been wounded?


Lacking something may signal the passage to the human dimension, and also what can support desire or love. With a Freudian model, for example, hostility to someone who is perceived as having something can be so great that a woman might only be able to love a man who seems crippled in some way, lacking : missing a body part, presenting some weakness, or seeming to have lost everything, their job, their money etc. If we can become infatuated with ideal images, it is only when an image starts to lack something that we can speak of love as such.


To return to the ‘Mona Lisa’, one might ask how it could ever become a painting again and not simply a symbol of painting. The immediate answer is : to steal it. When it did vanish from the Louvre in 1911, more people went to see the empty space than had gone to see it in the months prior to the theft. And many of those who went to see the empty space had never even seen the original painting. One is thus tempted to ask how an armless Venus could ever become a sculpture again and not simply a symbol of sculpture? The logical answer has to be, once again, to steal it, but Quinn’s work here offers another option.


Stealing a painting shows the bond between the visual image and the lack it is based on : otherwise, how could one explain the presence of the crowds that flocked to see a blank space? What Quinn does with these eight figures is to make us reassess the function and the form of the partial figure through the motif of lack, inviting us to see classical sculpture in a new light. Partial figures were used for centuries in art academies to train artists to render the complete, non-partial figure, and in a sense the partial figure has come to signify totality itself. Hence an artist like Henry Moore could say that a torso fragment can stand for an entire figure.


When we see an incomplete figure, this association is so powerful that we are often unable to see it as incomplete. Albert Elsen could say that the partial figure today “is so frequently seen and taken for granted as to be often invisible to the artists themselves”(3). Even in a work as prestigious as the Florentine ‘Pieta’ of Michelangelo, in which the figure of Christ has suffered a strange amputation of the leg, it took a few hundred years for the missing limb to really be missed (4).


So why is it so difficult for a partial figure to be partial? Two reasons suggest themselves. Firstly, because we read these sculptures as symbols of the classical age, and as such, their partialness is subordinated to their function as symbols. When Matisse reportedly salvaged a torso discarded by Maillol because it looked too much like an antique, his gesture demonstrates the tenacity of this signifying link between partial figures and antiquity.


And secondly, because there might be no such a thing as a complete image : if there is always something missing from an image, the only way to evoke completeness would be via an image that appears unfinished. What attracts our look is, in general, what we cannot see, and we search the field of vision for what can never be present there, the part lacking from the specular image. Perhaps this is why the Romantics professed an aversion to the ‘finished’ and sung the prasies of the unfinished (5). Knowing that the finished in fact could never be attained, its ideal could only be maintained by generating unfinished things. In this sense, all art is unfinished, since it can never satisfy the appetite of the eye, it can never give to see what the subject searches for.


Quinn’s work, however, sidesteps both of these threads since his partial figures make no claim to be incomplete. In contrast to the archetypal forms embodied in some classical sculpture, these figures are singular and individual : they are the figures of those made limbless by illness or accident. They carry their own proper names as legends. The exclusion of such subjects in classical sculpture, their banishment from the world of ideal forms, is thus revoked.


Unbroken surfaces with their absence of detailed musculature come into the place of something bodily and broken, the events which have  given these figures their particular bodies. There is a sublime effect here, challenging powerfully popular representation and perception of amputees and those born without limbs. The statues embody both the individual realities of their subjects and, through their formal features, the dimension of classical art and the symbol : their space is thus the zone between life and death, between the animate, living body and the mortified dimension of the sign.


The use of marble and the classical contours of these pieces evoke antique sculpture, but whereas the limblessness of the classical figure indexes a totality beyond itself, these limbless figures are, strictly speaking, self-contained. One might suppose here that Quinn’s figures are, in fact, incomplete, since their lack of limbs evokes the limbs they might have had or indeed once had.  Yet the figures have a serenity about them, a patience, which directs us away from the stories of the bodies they might have had. And it is this serenity and patience, this sense of heroism, which becomes the problem now for the viewer. As we expect the classical partial figure with its symbolising powers of completeness and ideal form, the experience of lack moves over to the viewer. We wanted a partial figure and, because these figures are genuinely partial, we don’t get it.


If this uneasiness can transform our relation to classical form, Quinn’s work also challenges our perspectives on modern sculpture. Rodin is often seen as the key figure in the renaissance of the partial figure,  with his celebrated focus on the incomplete body or body part. But whereas in pieces like ‘The Earth 8’ of 1884 or his ‘Male Torso’, Rodin’s severance of limbs highlights an arrest of the modelling process, Quinn’s figures seem fully sculpted : where the partialness of Rodin’s bodies refers to the act of sculpting, Quinn’s refer to the sculpting of amputation itself. Or, one might say, to the sculpting of partialness.


These pieces contrast with much of Quinn’s earlier work, where the body is presented either as a compressed, shrunken residue ( the Planck Density series ), a dripping, slimy fluid ( Paranoid Nervous Breakdown ) or a pure mirror surface. This new realism, as we have seen, is a complex one, evoking not just the individual bodies of his models but also the nature of the partial figure as a symbol of art and ideal form. The pieces work, in a sense, to collapse the efficacy of a symbol, and in doing this, they evoke the whole question of the construction of our reality through symbolic systems. The man-made, symbolic dimension is reinforced by the luminosity of the marble and the finish to the body edges, particularly the mouth and eyes, which give these pieces a strange artificiality. This problem of signs is continued in ‘The Garden’, the creation of an enclosed space with its wild range of flora at rest in silicon.


Just as the use of marble and classical form in the figures questioned sculpture’s function as symbol, the garden piece invites an enquiry into the nature of symbols themselves. A garden, after all, is always telling a story, and as the renewed research in the last twenty or so years into the iconography of gardens has shown, a garden is always a signifying garden(6). It is a privileged space for the transformation of supposedly natural objects into signs, as they are marshalled together in varying geographies and constellations. If the garden is formal, its axes may evoke divine geometry, if wild, its rudeness may embody the postlapsarian world or the powers of the wilderness for the fathers of the church. Each culture has its gardens, the stage for both the enactment of man’s contrived dominion over nature and a testimony to the changing notions of private and public space. In this sense, a garden to a culture is like a weed to a garden :  a symptom which can be read to reveal the hidden, or not so hidden, stories of its inhabitants.


As we approach Marc Quinn’s garden, the first effect is of the concentration of light. Housed in a steel enclosure, evocative perhaps less of the Christian open-air garden than of Virgil’s underground Elysium, an artificial light emanates from the enclosure’s entrance. We might be about to enter a light box or camera obscura rather than the kind of space we would associate with a botanical garden. The light is dim outside yet stark and concentrated inside, and we are drawn towards it in a movement which sets the tone for the motif of our capture in images.


Entering the enclosure, the closed, bounded space of a light box suddenly becomes the expanse of a great space. The set of mirrored walls produces the optical effect of volume, to set the contraction of space signalled by the enclosure against the transmutation of the interior space into an unbounded one : in Donne’s words, it “makes one little roome, an every where”. This everywhere is an artificial one. The box-like form, lighting and mirroring embody the artificial, as does the choice of plants that could never cohabit together in nature. These plants are strange and baroque, both in their composition and their arrangement. In this unnaturalness, they evoke the attempts to cultivate botanical gardens after the discovery of the New World. The arrival of exotic and undreamt of flora became an invitation to gather together what must have been dispersed from the Garden of Eden after the Fall.


This diversity of flora would evoke the many sides to the creation, and would add new labours and possibilities to the efforts to maintain a garden in perpetual bloom. But the plants in Marc Quinn’s garden are in a strange state. Pure and frozen, housed in silicon, they live an eternal spring, the perpetual blossoming dreamt of for centuries yet now made possible by the most artificial of substances. Alive in one way yet mortified in another, they are suspended between life and death. What allows the plants to live forever is the same thing that suspends their existence, to produce a new materialisation of the state  ‘in between two deaths’.


We are born and then we die, but in between is the mortification produced by the symbol. Language, signs and symbolic systems are there before we are, yet they are what represent us and organise our lives, turning our status as organisms into that of human subjects. The flowers in Quinn’s garden embody this dimension of the symbol. Not simply in the sense that a rose or a lily might have the iconographic meaning, say, of the modesty or purity of the Virgin, but that it is impossible for a flower not to mean something : we can’t get the symbols out of flowers. The slogan ‘Say it with flowers’ shows how flowers are a language, even if it is not always the easiest language to interpret. Is the gift of flowers, for example, a message of affection or the sign of guilt?


And why is it that this choice of the token of love involves the most transitory of objects? A flower, after all, has no fate but to perish. Quinn’s flowers, however, seem to escape this fate : they are eternal, they bloom forever, yet they are at the same time inaccessible. The garden here brings us back to the problem posed by ‘Continuous Present’. Both works do not simply present something to which the viewer can bring their gaze, but interpellate the viewer by bringing them into the picture : in the first piece, in the form of the distorted reflection, in the second through the transportation of the viewer’s image into the space of the garden via the use of mirrors. We see ourselves there amid the vegetation, to give a new twist to the well-known motif of the  figure in the landscape, the hermit who would incarnate the ideal of solitary meditation (7). In the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, so dear to the eighteenth century imagination, this figure was frequently situated in the landscape, whether in sculpted, literary or animate form, yet Quinn’s figure is our own two-dimensional image.


This contemporary figure in the landscape is thus a virtual one, our own image that is made, literally, to inhabit the garden. The classical figure has been desubstantialised, emptied out. And this introduces what is arguably a key theme of Quinn’s work. If the garden evokes an Eden, it materialises – formally – the object of our desires, the space which we long to inhabit and which we strive towards. But Quinn’s garden confronts us with the fact that when we finally find ourselves in the same space as these objects, we lose ourselves : we are only there as an image, void of any substance. The same optical effect that transports us into the garden robs us of our bodily presence.


This is a tension that preoccupies Quinn in his work : the impossibility of being somewhere all at once. In earlier works, it takes on the form of a split between the the real of the body and the body image, and here, in the gap that blocks us from being in the same place as our object. The garden is playing hare and tortoise with us : when we arrive at our destination, we are not fully there. And just as we can’t fully be in the garden, the arrangement of mirrors suggests to us that we can walk around it, until we realise that the narrow corridor we see behind the garden is in fact inaccessible, a reflection that seems to be of the very space we are occupying, yet without us : we have been robbed of our own image.


In the same way, the objects that make up this garden are in a sense untouchable, condemned to eternal spring by their silicon envelope. If we could access them in three dimensions, they would cease to live, wilting and shrivelling up. Our only route into their silicon world is through the image. If we tried to bypass the image, we would not have the object, and to have the object, we do not have ourselves.


This failure is what defines desire itself, as a movement that continually misses its object. If desire is a lack, no real object can satisfy it, and we remain at the level of the quest, a quest that is as perpetual as the eternal spring that haunts the history of gardens. Quinn’s garden, in this sense, is about loss : we are forever separated from  our objects. But beyond this there is an aspect to the garden that touches on not absence but presence. If desire circulates around a lack, what about the dimension of the body and its drives, the real presence that disturbs and distorts our reality when it emerges? This is the question of the baroque nature of Quinn’s garden, and shows us the point that emerges at the junction between two deaths.


Reality is defined by the exclusion of certain objects. With the loss of our primary libidinal objects, the world becomes a field of interest to us as we search to refind them. When something is withdrawn from our mouth, for example, we then try to put a lot of other things inside it : that is one way in which they become interesting to us. Without a first loss, reality would be completely indifferent, as it is, for example, in certain autistic states. Many art forms elaborate this question of the field of reality being constructed on an absence, with evocations of the unfinished or the unseen indexed by the work itself.


Quinn’s marble figures might be an example of this. But other art forms focus less on this constitutive absence than on real presence, on the question of what happens when the objects whose exclusion defines the framework of our reality start to reemerge within it. By definition, such works will seem to distort or tear open reality. The baroque would be one example, where we see the libidinal focus of the body altering classical form, twisting space and tugging at select points in the body image.


The unreal, or too real, effect here is present beyond the motif of desire in Quinn’s garden. It is too luxuriant, too close to us, too diverse. This paradise, with its carpets of flowers, its fungi, its artichokes and cabbages and fruit trees, is stifling, nauseating, too much. If Eden, for some, embodies the ideal of what we desire, what we strive towards, this garden suggests to us that what we desire is not what we want. This effect is echoed in the feeling we have viewing ‘The Garden’ that it is us, rather than simply the flowers and plants, that are trapped inside an enclosure. Where Milton could write, in lines dear to the creators of gardens, that “in contemplation of created things/ By steps we may ascend to God”, the surfeit and enclosure of Quinn’s garden suggests that this might not be where we want to go. These created things are too overpowering, too present. And hence, perhaps, that we are far safer in the arena of lack, circling around our object without ever really getting there.


Rather than indicating man’s harmony with his surrroundings, this baroque side confronts us with our fundamental lack of harmony with the creation. If the frozen, eternal character of this flora embodies a living death, and its Edenic reference points to our own mortality, the surfeit of the garden is situated at the point of fracture between the two deaths, the zone between our symbolic and our biological mortalities.


This in-betweeness is made literal as we leave Marc Quinn’s show. We move away from the eternity of the garden to exit, and as we do so we are confronted once again with the reflecting cylinder with its ineffable death’s head. Quinn could have chosen, like one of the seventeenth century garden architects, to design his garden in the form of a sundial, but his clock is situated rather in the absolute revolutions of the skull. In the time it has taken us to view Quinn’s works, the clock has been ticking, the skull has revolved around its axis. If we view art, in one sense, as a screen beyond which is death, our position as spectators is questioned once again : our contemplation does not save us from the passage of time. And the art work here, rather than being looked at, looks back.





(1) I discuss this theme in ‘No Visible Means of Escape, Some Thoughts on the Work of Marc Quinn’, Kunstverein, Hannover, 1999.

(2)  Jacques Lacan, ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’, ed J-A Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, London, 1977.

(3)  Albert Elsen, ‘The Partial Figure in Modern Sculpture’, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1969. I am grateful to Jay McKean Fisher of the Baltimore Museum of Art for providing me with a copy of this text.

(4)  Leo Steinberg, ‘Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta : The Mising Leg’, Art Bulletin, 1968, pp.343-353.

(5)  Eric Rothstein, ‘’Ideal Presence’ and the ‘Non Finito’ in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 1976, pp.307-332.

(6)  Simon Schama, ‘Landscape and Memory’, London, 1995.

(7)  J.M. Hunt, ‘The Figure in the Landscape : Poetry, Painting, and Gardening during the Eighteenth Century’, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, Stanley Stewart, ‘The Enclosed Garden, The Tradition and the Image in Seventeenth-Century Poetry’, University of Wisconsin