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Marc Quinn on His New Show at Kew Gardens in London: ‘There’s a Sort of Alice in Wonderland Feel to it’

Fortunately for Marc Quinn, London’s grey sky momentarily clears and the sun shines down on the morning he has chosen to unveil 17 sculptures at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in west London.


‘Visibility and light are really important for the show,’ says the British artist, standing before Event Horizon (Sabal), a five-metre-high, immaculately polished stainless-steel palm frond. ‘These works are like analogue screens. Once they’re placed outside, they become activated, reflecting elements like time, climate and the audience. Light is the beginning of their life.’


To those familiar with his work, Quinn is known as an artist who explores what it means to be human. He first came to prominence with the work, Self (1991), a frozen cast of his own head made from 10 pints of his blood. It played a starring role in the Royal Academy’s watershed 1997 show, Sensation, and firmly established Quinn, alongside Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, as one of the Young British Artists.


For the past year, Quinn — now 60 — has swapped the confines of his east London studio for Kew’s 326 acres of UNESCO-protected gardens, home to some 17,000 living species of plants. With the guidance of Kew’s scientists and horticulturists, he has pored over the collections, searching for the most fascinating specimens to work with.


Marc Quinn. Photo: Mary McCartney


‘Palms are used for so many different things,’ he says. ‘From shelter to fabrics and paper. They are life-sustaining plants. I think humanity would look very different without them.’


Quinn created Event Horizon (Sabal) using a 3D-scanner to produce a maquette, which his foundry then recreated in outsize dimensions from hand-beaten sheets of stainless steel. The result, he says, looks like an aeroplane’s engine turbines. Another rendering of a frond from the same species of palm, Singularity (Sabal), will be offered by Christie’s Private Sales in Dream Big — A Selling Exhibition of Monumental Sculpture from 14 June 2024.


‘If someone told you this plant had been designed by a human for some kind of purpose, you’d believe them,’ says Quinn. ‘It’s fascinating to me that plants evolve these complexities without having a brain. They’re not thinking about what shape they should become, they just grow. It’s quite extraordinary.’


Quinn repeated this process to make other works for the Kew show, including Light into Life (Photosynthetic Form) and Light into Life (The Evolution of Form) — both of which are also presented in Dream Big — as well as Burning Desire and Light into Life (The Morphology of Forms): sculptures of orchids in stainless steel or bronze painted blood-red. Positioned both outdoors and inside Kew’s Temperate House, their alien, fleshy, symmetrical forms are tantalizing and undeniably sexual.


Marc Quinn (b. 1964), Burning Desire, 2011. Painted bronze. 393 x 436 x 216 cm. Kew’s Great Pagoda, which was built in 1762, is in the background. Photo: © RBG Kew


There are also five huge steel silhouettes of medicinal plants, inspired by Kew’s Victorian herbarium (which contains seven million dried samples collected since the 1600s), as well as two colossal bronze casts of bonsai trees.


‘The bonsai sculptures are rooted in reality. The first was a portrait of a real tree that was a gold medal-winner at Chelsea Flower Show,’ explains Quinn. ‘Then I based them on arrangements by the Japanese bonsai master Masahiko Kimura. We used a jewellery casting technique to create the intricate leaves — it’s delicate, yet very strong.


‘I wanted to emphasise humanity’s control over nature. If you plant a bonsai in a garden, it will actually grow back into a full-size tree eventually.’


Quinn points out that he has been working with plant life for many years. His interest started in 1993, when he recreated Self with coconut water — ‘the blood of the plant’ — for the work The Origin of Species. Frozen solid in a mirror-sided cabinet, the work is on display at Kew as part of a survey of new and existing works about nature in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.


Marc Quinn (b. 1964), Origin of Species, 1993. Stainless steel, coconut water, glass and refrigerating equipment. 206 x 61.5 x 61.5 cm. Artwork: © Marc Quinn studio.


This segment of the exhibition also explores Quinn’s fascination with freezing flowers — a practice that culminated in Garden, a work commissioned by Milan’s Fondazione Prada in 2000, which featured thousands of freshly cut flowers frozen in tanks to create a temporary Garden of Eden.


Also on display are photorealist still lifes that riff on Old Master flower paintings; spray-painted works in the style of cyanotype prints; a bouquet of flowers cast from dehydrated, readily available commercial animal blood; and a corridor lined with watercolours of orchids.


‘Formally, in terms of shapes, I find orchids very interesting,’ says the artist. ‘I began making sculptures like Burning Desire, of the Phalaenopsis [moth orchid], because I’m also interested in human shopping, which is now the engine of evolution. This is the most bred species of orchid in the world, meaning, genetically speaking, that it’s the most successful. But that’s not through evolution — it’s because humans like to buy them to look at.


‘Everything in the show comes back to man’s relationship with nature. There is a sort of Alice in Wonderland feel to it all,’ he continues.


‘I play with size — small things made big, plants and cells blown up — and lots of changing of shapes. Gardens can be quite hallucinogenic places, really.’


Marc Quinn: Light into Life is at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, until 29 September 2024


Christie’s Dream Big — A Selling Exhibition of Monumental Sculpture features Marc Quinn’s Light into Life (Photosynthetic Form), Light into Life (The Evolution of Form) and Singularity (Sabal), in addition to large-scale sculptures by Richard Serra, Manolo Valdés and Louise Bourgeois. The works will be offered by Private Sales from 14 June to 30 September 2024, online


ML Staff. Content/image courtesy of Christies

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