No time like the future says British artist Marc Quinn

Art should be rooted in the present so it can address the generations to come, British artist Marc Quinn tells Clara Chow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:19pm

Midway through the interview with Marc Quinn, this writer commits a faux pas. "Are you wearing a Damien Hirst T-shirt?" I ask, pointing at his lime-green top with a circular print of swirling colours, reminiscent of Hirst's splatter paintings.

"No, I am wearing a Marc Quinn T-shirt," he replies, his placid and friendly manner frosting over. This British artist, after all, had launched a fashion range with Selfridges in 2011 that was favourably reviewed in British Vogue. Thankfully, our chat continues amiably as we trundle along in a golf cart.

It's a rainy afternoon, and we are on a whirlwind jaunt through Gardens by the Bay, the green oasis on reclaimed land in Singapore, in which Quinn's Planet has recently been installed. The seven-tonne bronze-and-steel sculpture of a baby seems to float serenely, despite its heft, over the undulating green hills with skyscrapers in the distance. Its creator wants to check on it, snap some photographs and then catch a flight to Hong Kong to discuss an upcoming exhibition, so he is answering my questions on the fly.

What does he think of Planet's new home? "I think it's great, I like it a lot," he says. "It fits in with the whole theme of the garden, and our relationship with nature and our place in nature. The planet is a thing that's much bigger than you, and it's also an image of vulnerability that needs nurturing - we have to take care of it."

Donated for permanent display in the Gardens by Indonesian tycoon Putra Masagung and his wife, Planet (2008) was previously installed at the South Lawn of Chatsworth House in England and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Quinn used his older son, Lucas, then seven months, as a model for the piece. Now 11, Lucas, according to his dad, is not bothered where the monument to his infanthood ends up.

An artwork is like a time machine. It's the only thing that can carry emotions through time
Marc Quinn

For a man whose work has shocked the public (a Japanese tourist, by Quinn's own account, once fainted in front of Self - the seminal self-portrait made out of the artist's own frozen blood) and brought out the vitriol in critics ( The Guardian's art columnist Jonathan Jones has accused Quinn's giant baby of infantilising art, calling it a "bland cocktail of awe and empathy"), the artist is surprisingly polite and low-key. He listens with a faint smile playing on his lips and surprisingly innocent eyes; as his departure time looms, he obligingly signals to keep the questions coming as he tries to stuff his belongings into his luggage, to make the most of the little time left.

"I like things that seem to be one thing and then something else," the 49-year-old says. "You like to have moments in artworks where suddenly your perception shifts 180 degrees."

He is talking about his varied oeuvre so far, which includes a DNA portrait, comprising bacteria grown on agar, of genetic scientist Sir John Sulston. But he might as well be describing himself.

Asked what he makes of the controversy his work gives rise to, he says: "I like to bring real life into art, that's true. But look at any news bulletin and it's a million times worse. I don't make art about people being blown up. Art should reflect the time you live in. I'm making art for the future, for people who have not been born yet."

Time and evolution - either of the individual or the entire human race - are threads that run through his oeuvre. It is not surprising, considering Quinn read history and art history at Cambridge.

"I look at Egyptian sculpture at the British Museum, and time disappears," he says. "You are looking at an art piece made 3,000 years ago, and it still conveys to you what the artist who made it was feeling.

"An artwork is like a time machine. It's the only thing that can carry emotions through time. That's why it's important to make art about now."

Come November, he will mount his solo exhibition at the White Cube in Hong Kong. What he will exhibit is still undecided, but before that, there is the Venice Biennale, from June to November. There, he will showcase more of his monumental shell sculptures in bronze, produced with the help of high-quality 3-D scanners. Like the DNA portrait, his new sculptures explore the limits of technology - of taking the digital code of an object and reproducing it through the electronic printer.

Quinn will also show new paintings - of meat. Lamb is the best to paint, he says, because the lean-to-fat ratio of the flesh makes for aesthetically pleasing patterns. It's a paradox, a reversal, he adds: the meat, in a painting, looks like landscapes.

Quinn says he remembers making little sculptures out of marzipan when he was four or five years old. He went on to become Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan's assistant, before exhibiting his own work in the 1990s. Since then he has produced giant bronze orchids with titles such as The Archaeology of the Baroque, entire gardens suspended in silicon oil and refrigerated air, and sculptures of transgender porn stars.

The fact that Quinn did not go to art school helped rather than hindered him, he says. "Technically, I'm not restricted. Most people spend five years unlearning what they've learnt."

Soon, he was being hailed as one of the Young British Artists - a loose movement marked by eyebrow-raising concepts, wild antics, the patronage of collector Charles Saatchi, and media field days.

Today, has he thought of collaborating with his wife, British author of children's books, Georgia Byng? No, he says. She does her thing, and he does his, and it's more interesting that way.

For someone so interested in crafting things that transcend time and mortality, how would he like to be remembered? "I don't know," he says. "You can't control what people think when you are gone."

And with that, he's off to catch his plane.