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Marc Quinn interview

Breathing apparatus, steel toe-capped boots, a grinder… Marc Quinn tells Time Out about blurring the line between painting and sculpture

© Marc Quinn Studio
By Martin Coomer |
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Marc Quinn has famously cast his head in his own frozen blood (‘Self’ 1991) and, even more famously, cast a pregnant Alison Lapper in marble (‘Alison Lapper (8 months)’, 2000). So, when we heard that for his first London show in five years he was painting seascapes at sunrise, we had an inkling there may be more to it than traditional oil on canvas. And we were right. At his Clerkenwell studio, the 51 year old talked us through his preparations for ‘The Toxic Sublime’. 

'The Toxic Sublime' in seven steps

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step one: go on holiday

‘I like looking at the sea and the sky. Most holidays I go to the seaside: the original image for this show is a photograph of a sunrise over the Atlantic that I took in the Caribbean. I like Turner and that sort of stuff, but I thought: You can’t do a painting like that. What would it mean? I’m an urban artist, I’m interested in the relationship between the urban world and the natural world, so somehow I wanted to combine the two. I suppose they’re about the impossibility of me being Turner, really.’

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step two: put the boot in

‘Initially, I painted them flat on canvas and it was really unsatisfactory. So then I started sticking the canvases on to aluminium so I could twist them, kick them. My steel toe-capped boots are good for kicking the paintings. I also wanted the work to feel like a found object. I like doing things that are sort of halfway between painting
and sculpture.’

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step three: become a street artist

‘Then I thought I’d open it up a bit, so I bought spray cans and layered and layered colour on and then stencilled things that I’ve found on the beach, bits of old… I don’t know what the hell it is, but it was washed up.’  

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step four: become a mad scientist

‘I have to wear a whole breathing apparatus because I’m spraying in a confined space. So when I’m working I feel like I’m in a nuclear lab. I’m kind of like on Planet Art where there’s no oxygen to breathe. I’m in it for up to eight hours a day, it’s full-on. But I’ve always liked endurance art, like giving blood for “Self”. I think there has to be an engagement with the work. The paintings are called “The Toxic Sublime” and there is this toxicity even in the creation of them.’

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step five: become a street artist again

‘Then I took the work out on to the street with a grinder. It’s creating a patina on the canvas. It’s like accelerated ageing, grinding it, rubbing down the street. I was really worried, like: Fucking hell! I’m going to spend my whole time explaining to people what I’m doing. But just one person has stopped and asked, and I’ve been doing it for like a year. It’s because we’re in England. Everyone’s
too polite.’ 

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step six: get in touch with your local manhole

‘I’ve incorporated rubbings of Thames Water manhole covers. So, you’ve got the element in its free state and then in its captured, conduited, kind of controlled way. It’s interesting to think of water as the thing that connects the whole world. It’s goes from a tap, to a glass, I piss it out, then it goes down and out, then it goes back in the sea. It’s the circulation system of the world, in a way. ’

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© Marc Quinn Studio

Step seven: stand back – and admire

‘There’s beauty, but it’s the beauty of finding an old bit of metal in the street. Ultimately, the work’s optimistic, I hope. They’re almost like impressionist paintings. The impressionists were painting the smog and the grime, even though now it looks chocolate-box. If you’re an artist, you’ve got to keep doing new things. If you can’t surprise people, it’s a bit sad. Whether they like it or not is up to them!’

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