Interview with Marc Quinn
Martina Droth When you first made Self in 1991, did you anticipate coming back to it over time?
Marc Quinn When I studied history of art at Cambridge I became interested in Rembrandt’s idea of doing self-portraits throughout your life. Self was always meant to be a series over time. A new one is made every five years. Although they all look similar, the information in the material—the blood, the DNA—is distinct in each one.
MD Were you also originally thinking about the AIDS crisis?
MQ I was thinking about blood in all ways, but AIDS was a huge thing at that time. Blood was life, but it was also potentially death—a paradox of two extremes. Self has conditionality—it can only exist in certain conditions. You have to keep it plugged in; it’s a sculpture on life support.
We don’t tend to think about it, but this is also true for humans: we can only live in certain conditions. Self is a cast of a head but if you turn the freezer off it becomes a pool of blood. It expresses, sculpturally, my ideas about life and death.
MD How are the History Paintings made?
MQ They are made an absurdly laborious way. They are hand-painted in oil by me and a team of painters. We blow up the picture, which gets copied onto a canvas and then painted. Photorealism is a process: if you know what you're doing and follow the rules, it suddenly emerges, but it's very labor-intensive. At the end, I take all the paint left on the palettes and throw it on top. So, suddenly, this labor of months is put to the test. After all that process, I like to have a moment of realization.
The paintings are also about how we look at time. A photograph is the quintessence of a moment—a sixtieth of a second. Spending six months on a sixtieth of a second, all those hours unpacking that frozen, tiny moment, is like rebuilding it with all the atoms.
MD We initially see these images on our screens or in a newspaper, but you've turned them into large-scale paintings where the figures are almost life-size.
MQ The figures are almost the same scale as you—you relate to them much more directly. A photograph takes scale and compresses it into a telephone screen. With my paintings I’m unpacking time as well as scale and taking it back to somewhere nearer the actual event. It is almost like a mirage—like being in the real moment again.
MD What draws you to specific images?
MQ From looking at thousands of pictures and paintings I have this database in my head—I can quickly spot what interests me. The photograph of Ieshia Evans reminded me of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus , when Christ reveals himself and the people fall backward. She is standing there, self-possessed and yet effortless—the breeze is blowing the hem of her dress, and she looks completely composed. Meanwhile, these armored figures are rushing toward her, and she seems to fall back a little. There is a moment of revelation. It seemed to symbolize the ultimate moral victory of her position against theirs. Although in the second after that she’s arrested and taken away, the photographer captured the moral truth of the moment.
MD The image which appears in History Painting (London 8th of August 2011) is still circulating, and the events associated with it continue to reverberate.
MQ Even more so because of everything else that’s happened over the last two years—the lockdown, Black Lives Matter, questioning police brutality. The important thing is to try to reflect, through art, on the critical issues of the moment. Art is a memory of the world. If you look at a news story from the 1930s, it becomes quite difficult to penetrate and feel that moment. Yet, if you look at Guernica, you feel the real emotional truth of the moment frozen in the painting. The London picture is still charged because it remains an unresolved issue.
Much of my work is about bringing things into art that never had a place there and creating space for them.
Along the back of the photograph you can see people with cameras, watching—it is a theater of history. Conflict has a theatrical element to it, which is very uncomfortable for us to think about.
MD The dates of the paintings show that you reacted to the events quickly, rather than pulling photographs from an archive.
MQ It’s always about the moment. That’s what the series is about. It’s only in the moment that you can really feel those resonances.
MD Your History Painting Emma [X] González Speaks at a Rally for Gun Control (Fort Lauderdale, 17 February 2018) RWB seems like a different type of picture.
MQ It is different because it is not a panorama; it is almost the opposite. This intimate moment reflects the wider context. High school shootings are about kids and real people. This painting has a humanity to it.
MD How are the History Paintings made?
MQ They are made an absurdly laborious way. They are hand-painted in oil by me and a team of painters. We blow up the picture, which gets copied onto a canvas and then painted. Photorealism is a process: if you know what you’re doing and follow the rules, it suddenly emerges, but it’s very labor-intensive. At the end, I take all the paint left on the palettes and throw it on top. So, suddenly, this labor of months is put to the test. After all that process, I like to have a moment of realization.
The paintings are also about how we look at time. A photograph is the quintessence of a moment—a 60th of a second. Spending six months on a 60th of a second, all those hours unpacking that frozen, tiny moment, is like rebuilding it with all the atoms.
MD What interested you about the Thames when you made the Thames River Water Atlas?
MQ My sculpture and related painting series Toxic Sublime  is about J.M.W. Turner in the age of global warming and is a mixture of environmental disaster and imagining the beauty of a devastating moment. It is about finding beauty in things that are terrifying. Behind each painting is a photograph of a sunrise I took over the Atlantic. I would paint on each sunrise, then take the pieces onto the street to get the texture of the sidewalks and metal ironmongery—like the manhole covers with the words “Thames Water” on them. If you go all the way along those pipes, you end up in the Thames. The pipes are like an abstraction of the river—all the capillaries, veins, and arteries going through the city like a circulation system. Instead of a book, I turned it into an abstract, figurative, fold-out map of the river. The river is like an artery or vein bringing life and liquid—so, in a way, it also connects to Self.