Marc Quinn – What turns something into something else?
How difficult it is today to sculpt the human figure. Where, after all, should one start? From the form of the body : the skeleton, the surface of the skin, the volume of flesh or the dense networks of nerves, muscle or even energy? Or maybe something else entirely. Marc Quinn’s new meat sculptures take the latter option, and in doing so, they create the sense of a human body more powerfully than any direct representation of the human body. Through sculpting something that is not the human body, he has sculpted the human body. In fact, the human body is so reduced to its essentials that we could even call these works minimal.
How could we explain this transfer from animal to human, this leasing or appropriation of apparently disparate forms? Quinn’s bodies all seem to want something from us. There they are with limbs outstretched, calling, knocking, trying to get our attention. Some of them reach out directly, as if appealing. They are all, in some sense, in active positions in relation to us. If many sculptures invite us to bring our eye to them, or reach out to them, Quinn’s pieces are doing the same to us. What could it be that they want?
Usually, it’s us who want something from meat. We consume it, doing everything we can to ignore or forget where it came from. Butchers and supermarkets sell the fragmented parts of the animal, making sure that as few parts as possible come into contact with each other. Each piece comes unattached to other pieces. That way, we can avoid the idea of a whole animal. The exceptions to this rule, like rabbit, with most of its body still in one piece, tend to unsettle us more than a lamb chop. The market for meat requires not only that we forget the wholeness of the animal, but also the chain which has delivered it from field or barn to our plate.
Why all this secrecy? The obvious answer is that we need to be distanced from the realities of the expoitation and slaughter of animals. We need to see these products as food and not as dead flesh. In other words, we need to avoid confronting the suffering and once-aliveness of animals, and the fact that they have bodies. But at another level, isn’t what we try to avoid exactly what Quinn’s new sculptures reveal so clearly : that we will see ourselves in the form of the animal’s body. Not that our body is their body, but that their body is our’s.
Quinn’s production process intrudes into the meat-selling chain to bring out these reflective properties. Carcasses are selected from meat markets, manipulated, cut up, severed or sliced, then frozen and cast. At the end of the process, we look rather than eat. But where the meat consuming chain generates a dehumanisation of its product, allowing us to eat it, the sculptural chain ends up with the most human of products : figures which seem just like us, which are all too human.
And they do this in a strange way. Quinn uses bronze and black patina, materials which invite the idea of a mortification. Flesh has become metal, dead and inert. And yet these works have a remarkable sense of life, as they appeal and call out to us. This meat really has become us, and it poses a parallel question about ourselves : when is it, after all, that we stop being meat? We all know that we share a biological body with the animals we eat : a body with blood, bones, organs and excreta. But however much of the raw, bloody body we see on TV or in the cinema, it is still kept concealed. We don’t see it as we see animal carcasses at a meat market. The equation has to be kept silent, rather than, as in these works, made to speak.
But it would be too hasty to see these pieces as about animal rights. The key is in the polarity : do we see animal forms as human or human forms as animal? Like Leonardo’s famous comments on how we see the human form in every cloud, Quinn shows how we see the human form in the animal. This almost becomes obligation, when we notice that everyone who talks about these pieces, including the artist himself, refers to the arms and legs of the figure. Arms and legs? Don’t we know that a cow or a deer or a rabbit doesn’t have arms? Where have they suddenly come from?
Quinn has carefully set these animal bodies in the language of art history. Titles such as ‘Reclining Figure ( Venison )’, ‘Torso ( Lamb )’ and ‘Mother and Child ( Rabbit and Lamb )’ all evoke classical and modern sculpture. And the poses are familiar from the history of images : the kouros pose of Egyptian sculpture, the compactness of mother and child in Renaissance Pieta scenes, the reclining Venus of Velazquez, the double-seated figures of Moore or the stretched torso of a Rodin centauress. But now it’s all being done with beef, pork and hare : less Rockeby Venus than Rockeby Rabbits.
This is one of the factors that endows Quinn’s figures with human features. The sculptural gesture of manipulating them into art-historical poses can certainly turn legs into arms. And indeed, meat has been used for centuries to represent the human form, with slaughtered animals standing in for Christian believers and butchered meat depicting the Christian way of all flesh. Sometimes, animal flesh had been used to make up the form of a body, as in works by Helen Chadwick or Jana Sterbak. But where these works were more concerned with showing how the human body is treated LIKE meat, or IS like meat, Quinn is bringing out the human body present WITHIN meat. Less that we’re like them, than that they’re like us.
That’s why we ‘re never supposed to know too much about meat’s prehistory and it’s why we can become so attached to pets. They become interesting to us since we see our own form in them. When a child shows no grief at the death of a loved one, they can become distraught a year later when their pet dies. And if we have thoughts about our loved ones we’d rather not have, we can distance ourselves from these thoughts through a transfer to our pets. It’s the same process that allows us to become interested in the world around us : if we can attach the image of the human form to houses, landscapes, tools and taps, they can start to mean something. And if they start to mean something, we can register and react to them. It’s the body that makes us interested in the world. If you don’t believe that, turn a tap on if you want to pee.
But how exactly do Quinn’s meat sculptures invoke this echo of the body? Is it just their encounter with art history that humanises these bronze carcasses? Another factor is just as important here. What is it, after all, that makes a body human? Perhaps the answer is the fact that it has been wounded. Is it an accident that the history of art is so full of wounded bodies, from bisons to Christs to Saint Sebastians? And isn’t it only when someone has lost something that they can become an object of human love – as opposed to an object of infatuation? Quinn’s figures are all missing something : not simply with their literal absence of limbs, viscera or head, but in their gestures of appeal. So many of these bodies are reaching out, as if pleading to us. It is this vector of intention, of appeal, that humanises the sculptures all the more. It is as if they all want an answer, not only from each other, as in the mother and child pieces, but directly from the viewer.
As with so much of Quinn’s work, this series also invites us to reassess our perceptions of classical sculpture. His earlier work in marble questioned the status of the partial figure, and the meat pieces elaborate this in a number of ways. Flat expanses of flesh are scored by folds of fat, creating harsh, violent ripples that evoke, curiously, the drapery of classical sculpture. Indeed, the more we scrutinise these works, the more we can wonder where exactly the body went in classical sculpture. With its generally even surfaces of human flesh, the packed relief and bunched contours of drapery were perhaps the ideal and only lodging place for the folds of skin and relief lines of real human bodies.
When we see the scratches and grooves in the surface of Quinn’s pieces here, they evoke this sculpting of draped cloth, an artificial addition, the product of the artist’s act. But these marks are in fact quite natural. These messy, detailed geographies simply follow the surface of the animal carcass creating a strange symmetry with man-made drapery. Quinn’s work is suggesting that tHIS IS WHAT DRAPERY WAS ALWAYS DOING. He makes us think not only about the subject-matter and tensions within his sculpture but also about what sculpture was up to before.
And as we see these bodies which have been torn open, we think about the sculptural act itself. They have, without exception, had their skin removed. The uneven, black patined surfaces might remind us of works by Rodin, but where the French sculptor could make the outside of the body look like the inside, here Quinn is using the inside to make an outside. Every now and again we see the spectre of a classical torso, but it is swiftly undone towards the base or head as its body dissolves into a split-open belly or severed joint. These points of amputation or aperture are not always easy to make out. The severed necks look like heads. Bits start to look like other bits.
This process of dissolution and exchange is perhaps clearest in works like ‘Double Seated Meat Figure’. Lumps of disparate flesh are being used here to make bodies, just as we might imagine that lumps of clay are used to make sculptures. The bizarre conjunctions of meat recall the working materials of the artist, so we are seeing a kind of enactment of the process of creation itself : the SELECTION of materials that normally belong somewhere else and their ADDITION together to make a new unity. The surface of these bodies even reminds us at times of the globby uneveness of a painter’s palette.
The question being posed here is similar to that arising from the meat production process itself : WHAT TURNS SOMETHING INTO SOMETHING ELSE. In a way, Quinn is doing to meat something he’s doing simultaneoulsy to classical sculpture. He’s asking us to think about where it comes from. About what has turned one material or form into another. And in doing so, to give it back its pain. Although we recognise many of the poses here from tradition, they are endowed with a new agony, as string cuts into flesh and the outstreched limbs ask us to recognise their suffering. And Quinn is showing us how it is this pain which creates space itself. These bodies have their own unique geographies : they look like figures but also like PLACES, tugging the eye from one point to another with the structured tensions between vertical and horizontal axes and between telescoped relief and flatness.
Some of these places evoke organic forms like trees, with their gnarled surfaces and open grottoes. These hollow spaces open up like the interiors of tree trunks, massive, uninhabited and isolated. But others remind the viewer of a habitation, of how a hollow has only been created through something being brutally torn out. ‘Torso (Lamb)’ generates this effect, its nested interior reminiscent of Munch’s ‘The Scream’, with a womb-like hollow inside a striken, grooved exterior. From behind, this sculpture looks like a woman clasping something desperately to her chest. But from the front we see there is nothing tangible, no other figure, only its own empty interior. Only what it has lost.
These nested sequences in the meat sculptures are difficult to dissociate from themes of reproduction and birth. But as they establish this connection, they are also inviting us to reassess, once again, a thread from the history of sculpture. The Baroque flavour of the surface and pose of many of these pieces will strike viewers immediately, but surely the hollowed out interiors evoke the grottoes so cherished by the Italian Baroque and the special sculpted niches built to house figurative sculptures. Rather than seeing these as mere containers, contingent frameworks for the works themselves, Quinn’s organic grottoes suggest how they too can be understood as part of the body. Where the Baroque separated container and contained, these figures show that they are both aspects of one body, torn apart from itself and built up around a zone of emptiness.
Quinn’s work follows a coherent logic with this new series. The marble statues were also concerned with loss, yet he chose unbroken contours for the bodies of those ravaged by the effects of illness or accident. Here, on the contrary, we see the broken, scored and suffering surface of what normally we are taught to see as a finished product, separated from its origin. And where the marble pieces invited us to reassess our relation to partial bodies both outside and inside art history, so these meat sculptures force us to think both outside and inside the history of sculpted bodies.