Work exhibited: Standing Figure (Rabbit).
Marc Quinn’s bronze sculptures (derived from casts of frozen animal carcases) struggle with an invasion of meanings that assail them from the history of art. But the viewer’s attempt to stabilise the meaning of each work through the context of tradition makes them complicit with a violent wrenching of the abject into contact with the desirable, and of meat into contact with spirit.
Quinn’s Flesh series, from which these three works are taken, is firmly in the tradition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a text that consolidated, if it did not actually inaugurate, the prehistory of artistic speculation about the relation between the material and the immaterial. The imagining through myth of the coexistence of spirit and flesh produced a congeries of scenarios in which various gods inhabited the physical forms of animals, birds, and trees.
The secular extension of this tradition endowed the same objects with a metaphorical freight of qualities recognisably human rather than divine. This anthropomorphising of nature had become so routinised by the mid 19th century that Ruskin would complain bitterly in Modern Painters of how the spread of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ was almost beyond recall. And yet the bronze menagerie of Marc Quinn embraces the dilemma with a constantly renewed sense of purpose.
The butchering, manipulating, freezing, and casting has not removed a sense of alien existence despite the very human persistence that is seen willing these animal remnants into their choreographed afterlife. The viewer cannot ignore the art historical matrix from which these gestures of reclining, cradling, and balancing have been taken. And yet to accede to the invitation of these echoes is to connive at a form of appropriation that turns these pivotal tableaux into spectacles of power.
Standing Figure (Rabbit) proposes, quite astonishingly, a relationship with Rodin’s portrait of Balzac, whose authorship of La Comédie Humaine – deliberately contrasted with the title of Dante’s epic, known as La Divina Commedia – emphasised flesh rather than spirit. Quinn’s rabbit is made to emulate the earlier statue’s monumental posture, suggesting the undeniable weightiness of Balzac’s analysis of the weaknesses and failings of humanity.
And yet the rabbit’s greatly magnified scale only serves to underline its own vulnerability, its incongruency as shadow to an icon of cultural authority. The extraordinary energy bound up in the original networks of muscle and sinew seems to emerge in bronze as a form of resistance to the unnatural constraint reproduced for symbolic purposes by the artist’s exertions of stretching, compressing and wrestling meat into shape. It is precisely that resistance which imbues these tortured figures with nobility, despite their conscription in a parody of heroic form that is exclusively human in conception.
Quinn is attuned to the various grounds of humanity’s symbiosis with an environment whose increasingly technologised character makes it ever easier for the non human to be placed at humanity’s disposal. If the themes of his art are the perennials of art history, they are also urgently topical, not least in judging that humanity’s instrumentalisation of nature has already gone beyond crisis point.