‘Self’ (2011) by Marc Quinn

Q&A with Marc Quinn

Artist using cells in some of his works

One of the ‘Young British Artists’, Marc Quinn is well known for his sculpture, paintings and drawings that explore ideas around how the body can change or be changed (including through disability, cosmetic surgery and genetic modification) and has famously used his own cells in some of his works. Chrissie Giles spoke to him to find out what inspires him and what it’s like to use parts of your body in pieces of art.

What role does science have in your work?

Science and art are two very different things. Science wishes to discover facts about the world, art is about creating objects of philosophical meditation and emotional communication, again, about what it is to be a person living in the world. They coincide in that they’re both interested in the mysteries of life: where do we come from? What are we made of? Who are we? Where do we go when we die? These questions are common questions – but art doesn't find answers, it just poses a question in a new way.

For me, [science] is important. I’m interested in bringing real life into art in some way – literally.

You’ve used your own blood and DNA in your work. What inspired you to do this?

With the blood head [Marc's work ‘Self’, a sculpture of his head made of his own frozen blood] I was trying to think of an organ that could be harvested without killing the host. You can take blood out and the body will rebuild it. Again, you have a sense of the wonder of the way that the body can recreate itself. It’s a metaphor for life and death.

For the work using DNA, it just so happened that, at that moment, the same philosophical questions interested me and interested science at the same time. For example, the idea of DNA as the instructions for building someone, and the question of how complexity evolved out of a binary code. 

Have you ever collaborated with a scientist?

I worked with Professor Sir John Sulston [the British Nobel Prize-winning biologist who was central to the Human Genome Project] to create a portrait of him that contained his DNA. That was very interesting – I went to meet him with no preconceptions about what to make. He showed me around the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and it was through his eyes seeing how everything worked that I came up with the ideas for the portrait. It was a literal collaboration too, because I got some of his DNA.

Is it different using somebody else’s body parts rather than your own?

No, it’s the same. I’m interested in the connections between people, not the differences. I thought that that was one of the most interesting things about DNA: people assumed that there’d be a massive difference between an Eskimo and someone from Equatorial Africa, but there’s hardly any difference.

Do artists need to care about science?

No, some artists have no interest in that at all, and they make a different kind of art. For me, it’s important. I’m interested in bringing real life into art in some way – literally. The most literal portrait is a piece of DNA. The most literal self-portrait is that made from the shape and body of the sitter, as ‘Self’ is. A lot of artwork to do with DNA was so boringly illustrative, it doesn’t really tell you anything to draw a double helix. It was very interesting to actually get to the nitty-gritty and work with the actual stuff – that gave it a reality.

How did you feel about science and art at school?

I did both science and art at school and I was interested in them for different reasons. My dad’s a physicist, so I had science around all the time at home. They’re both different things, but they’re both about discovering the world, just expressing it differently.

I’ve just done a series of paintings of people’s irises, which are close-ups... In the middle you have this black hole, which to me signifies the void and mystery of life.

Do you plan to continue using the body as an inspiration?

Yes, I’ve just done a series of paintings of people’s irises, which are close-ups, 2m to 4m wide. You get an image that is at once incredibly colourful and abstract in a way, but also a complete signifier of identity in the way that DNA is, because an iris doesn’t change. You can scan your iris to get into the country now. In the middle you have this black hole, which to me signifies the void and mystery of life.

Have you thought about using your body as art after you die?

Making the final work, you mean? Yes, I have thought about it. At the moment I haven’t really come to any conclusion of what would be interesting, and I have to think about my family’s wishes too. But it really would be the ultimate work, using what’s left behind. It’s quite interesting.

Lead image:

‘Self’ (2011) by Marc Quinn. Blood (artist’s), stainless steel, Perspex and refrigeration equipment.

Mark Longair/Flickr

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘The Cell’ in February 2011 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Cell biology, Careers
The Cell
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development