No Visible Means of Escape? Some Thoughts on the Work of Marc Quinn
Fiction often returns to the motif of the body swap. One character exchanges bodies with another, to produce tragedy in the older literature and comedy in today’s cinema. Art supposedly treats the same questions that generate works of fiction, but how could sculpture, for example, deal with a body swop? How could we know that a sculpted figure conceals the identity of someone else? Naming does not solve this problem. If the figure fails to resemble what we associate with the name, we might assume an irony, or that the figure is in fact bringing out the ‘real’ characteristics of the person, the artist’s impression of that person etc. There is no space, it seems, for a real body swop.
But what is it that allows us to spin fictions around the conceit of the body swop in the first place? To swop a body means that the body is something we can have or not have, and it also means that we are not identical with our bodies. Without these assumptions, there’s no such thing as a body swop. And these are exactly the assumptions that sculpture can address. In Marc Quinn’s work, there’s no escape from the question of embodiment, of what gives us a body and what the limits of this body might be. What sculpture supposedly cannot represent is thus made possible by what sculpture brings us back to : the question of what it means to inhabit a body.
Quinn calls this question ‘Incarnate’. It is about what it means to have a body and what it means to be embodied. And it is not a contingent issue. Embodiment, after all, was once the privileged question of religion. The manner in which body and blood could be incarnate in wafer and wine and the fate of the real body at Last Judgement were such crucial problems that one’s reponse could signal the difference betwen good faith and heresy, between life and death. If this question could occupy religion for so many hundreds of years, where is it today? How is it possible that a problem that was seen as so fundamental for so long could, like one of Marc Quinn’s ice sculptures, evaporate without leaving a trace?
Disappearance, in fact, was hardly the destiny of this problem. It shifted. The question of what it means to be incarnate in a body did not go away. Films like ‘Robocop’, ‘Face Off’ and scores of others, whatever their artistic merits, continue to perpetuate the concern with the nature of embodiment. And in our everyday lives, how we are linked to our bodies has become perhaps a matter of ever increasing importance. Rituals and systems of initiation once offered a guarantee that we were tied to our bodies. Having a body, in this sense, meant that the body had to be cut. Ritual mutilations, ranging from the extreme form of loss of a finger or a toe to the gentler form of the tattoo, situated the body in a community, in a symbolic structure. To have a body meant that the biological mass of the organism had to lose something, and in the process, become branded. But today, with the gradual erosion of initiation structures, what is there to give us a body?
The fact that this is a problem rather than a natural process is clear from practices as diverse as body working and piercing. Where it was a culture that once insisted on piercing the body in an initiation ritual, today it is the individual who decides to have themselves pierced. Where the ritual fails, the subject has to invent a ritual for themselves. And in the modern obsession with the gym, don’t we see the same problem of trying to find a way of anchoring ourselves to our bodies?
As civilisation reminds us every day that our bodies are not ‘us’ in any simple way, each subject has to find a way of assuming the body. The more we do things with a mouse, the more the ideas of virtual reality and of cyberspace invade popular culture, the effect is the multiplication of gyms and a concern with the muscular and internal reality of the body. Art occupies a space in between these two poles. In Marc Quinn’s work, we see less a contraction of interest to the disembodiment of electronic circuitry or to the branding and invention of the body through regime, than an engagement with the question which underlies both of these motifs : the question of what it means to be incarnate, to inhabit a body.
Where we could once debate the presence of the artist’s intentions or emotions in the art work, when Marc Quinn presents us with a head or a sausage made from his own blood, we not only get the artist’s ideas or a nice image but, whether we like it or not, we get the artist himself. The artist is quite literally incarnate in his work.
But is it really him? Doesn’t it show, on the contrary, that he is fundamentally not identical with his body. As works, the head and sausage seem to suggest that we are not our bodies, or rather, that the moment when we have to confront the fact that our bodies do consist of matter, we choose to distance ourselves. And the very fact of creating the work alters the frame of reference. Once the material of the body becomes sanctioned as a ‘work’, it ceases to be material. It becomes material of the art world, or, to put it another way, it becomes a signifier : people talk about it. Since this is the lot of any work which starts to circulate, it is the effort of each artist to constantly ask the question anew, to invent ways of making the body present but not as a signifier.
Signifiers, or ideas, have to be around for us to have bodies. Before we are born and after we die, we are the object of someone else’s thoughts. Although we are not living, we exist as ideas in the mind of others : without these ideas, we lack one basic dimension of our living bodies, the fact of being recognised as someone. But from the start of life, this dimension is not enough. Something has to be added to allow us to assume the body. We are all born, after all, prematurely. Contrary to most animals, a human infant will die if not cared for and fed by others. The nervous system is by no means completed in early infancy, and motor coordination is imperfect. We are born not as masters of our bodies but as captives.
Lacan had the idea that what allows the infant to transcend this state of bodily fragmentation is something quite precise. Drawing on the work of ethologists and psychologists, he described what he called the mirror phase, the capture of the infant in a visual Gestalt. An image, contrary to our body, offers the promise of wholeness and completeness, and it works to captivate us. This can be the image we see in a mirror or the image given to us by a human counterpart. Our capture in the image is an identification, as we assume this image as ourselves. It gives us the illusion of transcending our initial fragmentation, and it helps us to coordinate our motor functions. Put an infant in the company of other, slightly older children, and he or she will walk or run or crawl a bit sooner : it is through assuming the image of the other that the body can become a specular and motor unity.
It is thus the image that unifies the broken nature of the human body. But being caught in an image has a price. It means that we are not simply alienated outside ourselves, but that wherever there is a mirror image, a fragmentation is not too far away. If the image masks a body in pieces, whenever the image is put in question, the spectre of the fragmented body can return with a powerful gravitational pull.
And there is always an uncanny effect when we are suddenly confronted with the alien nature of our body image, the fact that although this image is ‘us’, it is never really ours. Seeing our reflection when we don’t expect to, or expecting to see our reflection and finding nothing there make us uneasy, and show us, momentarily, the abyss that separates us from ourselves.
Does this mean that to have a body means to have a body image, a specular surface that unifies us? Marc Quinn’s work explores this question with a real tenacity. First of all, there is the tension he establishes between the dripping, slimy, almost unborn body and the surface of the plane mirror. In pieces like ‘The Invisible Man’, this strange body is perpendicular to a plane mirror, giving the mirror phase a kind of literal incarnation. On one side, the body in pieces, on the other, the pure register of the image. If we look up at the mirror, we see a unity, but if we look at the body beneath it, we see a disintegration in process. Whichever way we look, we lose something.
As Quinn presents this question of the body beyond the specular image in his work, one motif seems strangely incongruous. In the midst of all these material bodies, we find flowers, pure and frozen, housed until eternity in silicon. Their stark beauty opposes the disturbing, ruptured bodies that surround them. So why did Quinn choose to say it with flowers?
In a sense, this is exactly the problem of the unification of the body. Between the slimy, dripping masses and the human body as a perceived unity are nothing other than the frozen flowers, if we see in them a materialisation of the image as such. The flowers in silicon thus have everything to do with the problem of how man assumes his or her body. What they present to us first and foremost is not just the image of a bunch of flowers but the image itself. Illusory, unbroken, eternal, it is all the things the body is not, yet at the same time it is what has allowed us all to inhabit our bodies.
The flowers confront us, then, not with our own image, but with what gives us a body. They peel away the image and show it to us in its fragility, in its function as a lure. Quinn’s work is indeed a work of unpeeling. Not metaphorically, in the way that we can say that Kiki Smith, for example, has unpeeled the human being to reveal what lies at its heart, but quite literally. This is one of the things that makes Quinn’s work so different from that of many of his contemporaries. We don’t just see bodies, but bodies in their relations with the mirror plane and it is not the clothing or even the skin that has been peeled off, it is the image itself, the imaginary surface that unifies us. What we then see is not the body minus the protection of the image but the body minus the actual function of the image. His work shows us not simply what an image is, but what an image does.
Without the image, the body starts to distort and decompose, to crumple and compress. The flipside of the eternal image is the crushed and pulversised body that we see in the studies of Planck Density, the body crumpled and compressed, as if once the envelope of the image has been removed, the body is simply the object of a set of forces that contract it. The body is being dragged back, reduced, imploded to an ineffable residue.
‘Paranoid Nervous Breakdown’ is the first piece presented for us to look at. But already within the work itself someone is looking : the six heads turn inwards not outwards, in an echo of the great stone heads of Easter Island which, as Quinn points out, all look towards the island’s interior. Rather than looking out to sea, as one might have expected, as a menace or warning to potential invaders, the function of the gaze is to look at ourselves. They are not there to guard the island’s inhabitants, but to threaten them. The gaze is what looks at us, and Quinn’s sculpture gives the truth of the Easter Island heads : like the superego, the gaze is less to defend us than for us to defend ourselves against. Although we think of ourselves as beings who look, we are first and foremost beings who are looked at. Hence in the very first piece to greet us, our position as lookers is already displaced : the heads surrounding the central axis, in fact, see nothing apart from themselves.
Quinn’s use of dripping, melting matter adds another twist to the question of the body and its mirror image. We may take a unity from the image, but the body cannot be reduced to the specular field : it has its own density, and the lurid cords that hang down from the heads give one a sense not simply of heat and temperature, but also of weight. The body may be pulled in the direction of the body image, but it is pulled downward, less by the virtual space of the image than by its own mass.
This dimension of the body is what reduces flesh to a sort of caput mortem in ‘Co-Axial’. This flattened body, crushed and crumpled, extends the motif of mass we find in the dripping, extended heads and also contrasts with them : the body is not expanding, seeping into its surroundings, but contracting. The series of crumpled bodies to which this piece belongs shows, indeed, contraction at its limits. The body is subject to forces, while its resitance incarnates the impossibility of a complete reduction. Flesh and bone cannot be contracted to a mere point. In a world where the body is always promised disappearance, they show the vanity of this promise : if Quinn’s ice sculptures can disappear entirely and become quite literally their surroundings, the Planck Density series shows that this effort will never be without a remainder, a hard, thing-like residue.
It is this effort towards disappearance that we find next in the ice studies of the kissing lovers, ‘Love is all around you’. As the ice melts, anyone nearby will incorporate parts of the matter that had once made up the sculpture itself. There is a certain humour in Quinn’s piece here. Love is supposed to be about incorporating, about becoming part of another or making them a part of oneself, as the expressions of language indicate : ‘I want to eat you up’ etc. But although the two figures will, as they melt, become one, it is less the lovers who incorporate each other than us, the viewers, who incorporate them. We eat them up. Love is thus not just all around us, it is in us. And just as the body contracted in the Planck pieces, now it fills up the whole space, with no tangible limit : the ice molecules, the work of art, is both within and beyond the gallery. The show goes home with us. Although we might not have swopped our bodies with their’s, they have swopped their bodies with us.
The ice work also confronts us with the vanity of the specular image. This work that we see will be no more, the beautiful image of the lovers will dissolve and transmute. Its fragile state in time establishes a tension with the silicon encased flowers, there till eternity, and with the two haunting marble figures that we see next. Marble is very different from ice. Quinn uses the medium of the classical figure here, but this medium produces a very different effect. Moving through Quinn’s work, we search for a complete, contoured body and we don’t find it. But now, finally, it seems, the artist gives us what we want. The solidity and the definition of a body, a classical medium, the wholeness of an image.
But these, of course, are incomplete bodies. The effect is ironic : the figures are missing limbs, but the pain of the body in ‘Paranoid Nervous Breakdown’ or ‘Co-Axial’ seems absent. The figures have a serenity about them, a patience. And it is this serenity and patience which becomes the problem now for the viewer. As we expect the whole image, and don’t get it, it is the viewer and not the subject of the pieces who is the one to really miss a limb : the pain of confronting an incomplete image where they expect, and at some level, yearn for, a complete one.
This reversal suggests something that is a concern throughout Quinn’s work : that man can never be mapped entirely into an image. Our image may ‘be’ us and it may look like us, but we are always separated from it. Try stepping into your specular image, and you lose something in the process. Left and right, for example, or up and down. Whatever you do to get closer to your image, there will be an effect of loss. Quinn’s pieces materialise this effect of loss continuously : we might call them embodiments of the impossibility of turning a body into a sculpture, in the sense of a concrete image.
The image, as we have seen, is caught in the eternal flower. Like marble, it seems to be imperishable. Outside silicon, the flower, of course, is the most perishable of the lover’s baggage. The beauty and life they present to us obscure the most obvious thing about them – they die swiftly. But here is a flower which will outlast even us. It will blossom until eternity, or until someone turns off the electricity supply to the cabinet. It is as if we are looking at the image itself, the object that functions in our lives exactly as a screen to protect our gaze from the realities of death and disappointment. Although a flower is there in ‘Re-Incarnate’, it is no different from an optical illusion. In its endurance this flower is just as much dead as alive : nothing happens to it, it remains in a stasis, and if it presents us with the problem of the image itself, it shows us something of the image’s lethal quality. The image that lures us, that traps us, that captivates us and that we wreck our lives upon.
The vase, made from the artist’s blood, perhaps evokes for us the toll exacted by the image. Its lethal nature makes us pay a price, and the tension of flower and vase also indexes the separation of the real of the body and the false promise of the image from the mirror phase. We might see here a transfer of energy from life substance to flower or even a continuity, but a deadly tension seems more apt to describe it. The body gives up, but the image endures. Like the chicken that carries on walking after its head has been severed. The image keeps going when biological life has been terminated, showing the separation of the image from the body, its autonomy. But imagine the headless chicken that walks, and then keeps on walking. When it walks initially, we might find it comical, but the comic effect will turn to terror if it doesn’t stop. The beautiful image of the flower thus pulls us in the direction of horror.
‘Re-Incarnate’ is the artist’s version of Faust. Except that he hasn’t given up his blood in return for knowledge or power, but simply for the image as such. It is a metaphor for the deal made with the image by those artists who aim to placate the eye rather than panic it. And, in a more general sense, it is the deal we all make in emerging from infancy, when we wrap up the fragmentation of the body with an image.
This is the body we see in the next room, but now the relation between the two dimensional enveloping image and the real of the body is complicated by the fact that we see literally a two dimensional image, a photograph of a woman’s sex. In a sense, the register of the image, the register of the vanities, is there to act as a shield and a barrier from this. This might be what many men want to be protected from, the image acting as a screen from the real of the body, although here the image fails to give any suport. But is ‘The Origin of the World’ simply an image? Isn’t it also a reflection? Situated on a mirror plane, it is a reflection, the capturing of an image, but what is it the reflection of ?
The object that ought to be in a mirror relation to it is in fact at ground level, the stunning mirrored glass forms that Quinn has been working with in the last few years. If they evoke for us the spermatazoa of the reproductive process, once again the impossibility of the body takes centre stage. The female sex is incarnate here as a photograph, as a two dimensional image, while the male sex takes the form of real, three dimensional masses, heavy and weighted down. The disparity of their mediums suggests the impossibility of their ultimately coinciding. The impossibility of man and woman ever being in the same place at the same time. The lovers of the ice kiss may have got there, but even with them, their form will mean that they have no fate but evaporation.
At the level of reflection there is also an exclusion. The silvered forms mirror us, they capture our images and also that of the woman’s sex. But the woman’s sex fails to send back a reflection. It does not reflect the silvered forms as they reflect it, confronting us with something more opauqe, more absolute. Indeed, what could be more absolute than the origin of the world? If this is where we come from, does having a body mean we have left it for ever? Quinn’s earlier work, made from bread and then cast in bronze or lead, puts this in question. These pieces are recognisable as human forms, but they are composed from lumpy masses, as if they were still in the process of going through the digestive system. The body here is still a part of the process of digestion, just as the forms in the silvered glass show the body still in the process of reproduction.
Quinn focuses here on how we don’t have a finished body, but a body in the process of being formed. They are in flux, caught not in the image but in the internal systems of the body. Where the human forms of the marble figures seem to present the outside of the body, its surface, these other pieces turn the interior of the body into its external surface. Toplogy, the mathematical study of how certain features of a space will remain invariant under continuous deformation, describes the Klein bottle, an object that can be imagined thus : take a bottle and twist it so that its neck re-enters at its base to coincide again from the inside at its neck. A Klein bottle cannot be made in three dimensional space, but we can imagine that if it could, it would look something like these bodies whose interior surface is also their outer form.
From origins to endings. The next piece certainly does offer the viewer a reflection, but not that to be found in the mirror. Like the flowers and what they cover, the death’s head interpellates us, its gaudy colour materialising a horrific enjoyment : and perhaps this is less the enjoyment of being alone with all the sins of a lifetime than that of being in the position of a true mirror. The dripping slime evokes once again the interior of the body, the body emerging from inside to outside at birth, and perhaps it is the very artificiality of the colours which points us to what is most real. As the processes of birth and death are forever the subject of scientific imaging in our medias, the only way to confront them is with what is the least ‘realistic’, the most extreme form of the man-made. To get to the raw, you need the cooked, and hence the plastic greenery that always comes with sushi.
And so we are back with ourselves. In the final room there is only a vast plane mirror. It’s just us and the image. Was this what it was all about anyway? We started, after all, with ‘Paranoid Nervous Breakdown’, in which the work included us as viewers, our own gaze materialised in the gazing heads. Are we now just left with our specular image? We came here to see works, and now what we end up with is ourselves. But outside, beyond us, another work hangs in the covered cloister, ‘No Visible Means of Escape’, and the artist really does mean it. We can see a body hanging, doubled with the form of its own image as if split by a plane mirror. But the mirror has not preserved its form : the body is hollow, jagged, scooped out, an envelope itself, as if the image had been peeled away.
This body is not one body, but two, even though it is the same one. The mirror plane has not unified, but doubled and emptied. It shows us how the mirror splits rather than unites. And ‘No Visible Means of Escape’ means for us, not just for the hanging, bound figures. This is the human body that we, the viewer, cannot escape from. As we turn to our own images in the wall-length plane mirror, the ghostly form of the hanging bodies intrudes, like an anamorphosis. They are mixed up with our own relation to our image, and as we stare at them, we realize that we cannot see them in their entirety. Our own image is upset by the intrusion of the reflections, but as we examine the reflections we see that they are only partial. Once again, the body eludes us, offering only fragments and pieces, aspects and lures. ‘No Visible Means of Escape’ means no escape from what captures us – the specular image – and no escape from the fact that its capture is always partial, incomplete.
‘Landed’, a shiny metal banana skin, awaits us as we leave the gallery. Who dropped it remains a mystery, but we can know for sure that we won’t be tripping up over it. For the simple reason that we have all already done so. We have all already fallen for the image and the contract we make with it. But what about the human-shaped imprint in it? Moving around Marc Quinn’s exhibition is like being in search of a body : everywhere we go we find an aspect of it – an incomplete form, a skull, a partial image, a contracted mass of flesh – but we never grasp the body in its entirety, in the complete form promised by the mirror image. We look for it everywhere, and then, once we have left, we finally find it : except that it isn’t there. There’s only an imprint. The body itself is absent. Perhaps because this missing body is our own. It is there, in one final reflection, looking at its own empty place. The body swop happened, but it is only now that we know it.