Another “portrait” from the National Portrait Gallery – Self by Marc Quinn. Quinn has built a reputation for producing controversial sculptures – his most public being his statue Alison Lapper Pregnant, depicting a disabled woman, which occupied Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth for 2 years. He also often uses unexpected materials in his work – Siren, his solid gold statue of Kate Moss generated a lot of interest, as much for its material value as for its artistic merit.
Self is both controversial and unusual in the materials it uses. It’s a sculpture of Quinn’s own head, made from 4.5 litres of his own frozen blood. The sculpture has to be kept frozen and encased in silicone to prevent deterioration. The artist has described it as, “a frozen moment on life support.” He first made the work in 1991, but makes a new one every 5 years. The National Portrait Gallery bought this one in 2006 for £300,000.
What do you think?
I think Self raises some interesting questions about what portraits are all about, and about the passing of time and the fragility of life. When an artist paints a portrait, he’s trying to capture a moment. He’s freezing time, taking a snapshot of a person. But there can be more to it than simply taking a snapshot of what’s someone looks like. It’s about capturing a person, a moment in their life and freezing it for all time. In Self, Quinn has literally done that. He’s taken his blood, a powerful symbol for his own life, and frozen it. When you look at the piece, you’re seeing a physical representation of the artist. But it becomes deeper than that – it’s a part of himself, packaged and preserved.
But the reality of the fragility of life is inescapable. If the refrigerated “life-support” system is withdrawn, the blood becomes liquid and the work ceases to exist. Although the NPG are very careful about such things, if you pull the plug, that’s it. And if you were to line up all 4 version of Self which have been made so far, you would see the artist age and change. We can use science and technology, and even art, to stave off the effects of time, but our own mortality is always there.