YBA trailblazer Marc Quinn on how he’s continuing to make new waves in art
A documentary about the artist’s working life shows how he is staying relevant by using new technology such as 3D printing, finds Alex Bellotti.
Since the so-called Young British Artists burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their continued dominance is how they have adapted to a constantly accelerating age of technology. What it means to be an artist now, even compared to 25 years ago, has changed so dramatically that it has redefined not just how we make art, but how we consume it.
In this sense, the release of a new documentary about renowned YBA trailblazer Marc Quinn could hardly be timelier. The film, Making Waves, captures a year in the life of one of Britain’s most celebrated and divisive artists as he travels the world, exhibits his most famous works and prepares for his latest show.
Having worked with director Gerry Fox 15 years ago on a Southbank show, Quinn believed the BAFTA-winning filmmaker could give an “honest view” of what being an artist means in the 21st century.
“To me, the film’s not really about my artwork, but about what it is to be an artist now,” says the Primrose Hill resident. “We don’t go into much depth about the work; it’s more about what I do all day, which is really interesting I think and a different take on an art film.”
From travelling across New York, Venice and Hong Kong to visiting the Chelsea Flower Show and hanging out with Lionel Ritchie, the film at the very least portrays an artist who likes to build momentum. The thrill of such hard work, the 51-year-old suggests, is in finding that art is becoming increasingly relevant in the modern world.
“We live in a much more visual culture now, with Instagram and all these things. It’s been a complete revolution in digital technology and people look more and more at art through media, but the great thing about art and the reason I think it’s more and more relevant is that essentially it is a unique, unreproducible experience.
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“It’s not like songs; it can’t be downloaded, it can’t be sucked in and regurgitated by digital media. Even if you’ve seen a picture of a painting or sculpture, when you actually stand in front of an object it’s a completely different experience.”
From an early age, Quinn was always making art, and after studying art history at Cambridge University he enjoyed a major breakthrough in 1991 when his sculpture Self was purchased by Charles Saatchi.
Infamous for using 4.5 litres of the artist’s blood to make a frozen bust of his head, the sculpture was the first in a long line of eye-catching works that include Alison Lapper Pregnant – a marble sculpture of disabled artist Alison Lapper – and a solid gold statue of a contorted Kate Moss, entitled Siren.
Quinn attributes his love of sculpture in part to Greek art; in the past, he has referred to art as “concrete philosophy” and says it is an especially democratic and direct way of exploring how we see ourselves in the world.
Part of his excitement about modern art particularly is once again indebted to advances in technology, which recently allowed him to render perfectly upscaled models of bronze seashells in a project called The Archeology of Art.
“I use digital scanning to make sculptures a lot now,” he says. “I think 3D printing and digital scanning are to three dimensional work what photography was to painting at the beginning of the 20th century. I think it’s going to change the way that art is made. I mean there’s a lot of rubbish being made, but there’s also been a lot of interesting things that you couldn’t have made before.”
Quinn’s latest exhibition, The Toxic Sublime, explores his continued fascination with “water, the environment, the urban and the natural”. His family form another key influence; although separated from ex-wife Georgia Byng, they have two children, which he says as an artist particularly “grounds you and give you a subject for inspiration”.
Both the documentary and new exhibition are testament to the fact that even well into the third decade of his career, Quinn shows no sign of waning relevance. Alongside contemporaries such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, he is now an indisputable figurehead in one of the most accomplished eras of British art – even if it remains as divisive as ever.
“I think if art’s about something, and not just decoration, you’re bound to have people with different opinions, aren’t you?” Quinn argues. “That period from the early ‘90s till now has been a very special time in British art. There’s been a lot more happening, a lot more interesting artists and for a long time it’s been a lot more vibrant. The international art world now looks to Britain a lot more not as a backwater, but as a world leader.”