Self-portraits are usually fixed, capturing a moment in time - usually in an artist’s formative years as a means of practice, or in later years, as a way to leave a legacy. London-born Marc Quinn’s infamous self-portrait is none of these things. It’s constantly changing, it’s alive and as a result, is a visceral examination of the passage of time.
Self may best be viewed as a project, rather than a piece, although there is a very real object that exists. Beginning in 1991, the artist vowed to construct a cast of his head using his own blood. Drawing 10 pints, roughly the entirety of the human body, Quinn submerges the blood-mask in frozen silicone, resulting in an unsettling deep claret colour, as if what’s on the inside is out. And, all there in front of the audience, is the entirety of what is keeping us alive, condensed into one small area.
The time in his life that he created it was crucial. Quinn was an alcoholic, his everyday depending upon the consumption of alcohol to function. In this cathartic creation, he removes this blood, saturated with alcohol, and plugs it into a machine to keep it frozen and in form, much like his own personal process of dependency on an external instrument - alcohol - to help preserve his own sense of self.
Symbolic of the multiplicity of life, of change, growth and his own personal circumstances, Quinn’s Self is quite unlike any other, sharing commonalities with the literary and imagined portrait of Dorian Gray.
As an on-going process, the sculpture is an evolving journal, re-cast at five-year intervals to document the physical milestones of ageing. Art itself, not only self-portraits, are objects we usually identify as fixed in a moment in time, not something that progresses with it. That’s because we deem art as the finished product, the accumulation of ideas and the execution of a concept.
Quinn’s process is certainly finished here, yet the concept is one that shifts. Self’s connection between the body as art and body as science draws parallels to other contemporary works, like Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990). Both reflect the profundity of life and death by creating something organic, that will ultimately expire.
Quinn describes it as a ‘frozen moment on lifesupport’, hinting at the manner in which it is preserved. Still, he calls it a moment, like it’s a snapshot of a period. Perhaps, considering his illness at the start of the project, he views Self as an autobiography, measuring change in his life by five-year phases. Using the term ‘lifesupport’ also nods to the intricacy of the process involved, that his art, in some way, is also keeping him alive.
While shock is a large part of its appeal, it is the lasting impression of the shock that has helped write Self’s legacy as more than an artistic stunt, but a deeply personal and honest companion to Quinn’s life. There was a first and there will be a last. This inevitability is a part of the visceral impact Self has. Acknowledging this makes each new cast all the more poignant.
More like this:
Please, check your email.