Essay by Robin K. Williams
A seashell is a mollusk’s exoskeleton. Washed ashore after the animal’s death, it appears as a jewel upon the sand—a protective shelter now exposed as vulnerable. Fortification for the mollusk, the shell can outlast the animal by thousands of years. And yet a sandy pulp of rocks and shells, formed over eons, squishes between the beachcomber’s toes.
In his sculptural series The Archaeology of Art, Marc Quinn transforms actual seashells into monumental forms. Spiral of the Galaxy, one work from this series, now finds a home in a public courtyard of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. The work is a massive bronze, ten feet high by fourteen feet long and weighing seven tons—an enlarged replica of a particular shell that Quinn once held in his hand. In it, the artist celebrates the magnitude of a delicate, natural world.
The sliding scales along which a society measures fragility and strength, ephemerality and endurance, even life and death, are central concerns of Quinn’s art. Throughout his career he has explored the unstable margins of life and the meanings we may find in them; the vital interconnectedness of all life forms across time; the desire to still a passing moment or to live forever; the prospect of living in harmony with nature and with other people. His work is fundamentally existential.
Among Quinn’s earliest and best-known works is Self (1991), a cast of his own head made from ten pints of his own frozen blood. This self-portrait as a revised classical bust not only represents the artist but also consists of him, here exemplifying the ways in which form and substance converge in his work to make meaning. Self depends on refrigeration to maintain its solidity, and therefore exists on a kind of life support, symbolizing life’s many dependences—a word that may be considered in more than one sense: Quinn was an alcoholic at the time. But the work also celebrates life’s vitality. The ten pints of blood constituting the sculpture equal the amount in Quinn’s body. For him, the head’s existence alongside his own signals the powerful regeneration of life.
Quinn first came to public attention in the early 1990s through his affiliation with the so-called Young British Artists, or YBAs. Now historical rather than descriptive, the label denotes a group of artists, then in or fresh out of art school, who exhibited together and appeared to flout artistic austerity in favor of shock value and publicity, with the further hope of sales. Yet we are still susceptible to YBA artists’ reinterpretations of realism and embrace of populism through relatable subject matter and a range of nontraditional materials. In a 2013 interview with curator Germano Celant, Quinn said that, for him, the YBA movement had been about “bringing real life into art.” In Self he achieves this, materially and thematically, as he does in Spiral of the Galaxy. Quinn’s urge is holistic and metaphysical, a desire to translate the substance of life into image.
But his work is motivated by the ethical as well. In his sculptural series The Complete Marbles, for instance, Quinn subverts Western ideals of “Beauty” and “Virtue.” Inspired in part by broken classical sculptures, such as the Venus de Milo, the series depicts people born without limbs or who have lost limbs through accident or illness. Made from direct molds of the subjects’ bodies in collaboration with traditional marble masons in Tuscany, the sculptures appropriate the authority of Neoclassicism to promote more inclusive views of humanity grounded in diverse bodies and life experiences. The culmination of this series, Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005), is a fifteen-ton monument created for public display. Lapper, an English artist born without arms and with shortened legs, appears in a dignified pose during her eighth month of pregnancy. Temporarily installed on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London—a site built in commemoration of British war heroes—the sculpture challenged people to examine and expand their own notions of both physical beauty and heroism.
As reported to Celant, Quinn believes that “beauty lies in reality, that it is beyond appearances and is about feeling contradictory emotions at the same time in a compelling way.” The apprehension of beauty, in this sense, is a dialectical process involving sensory and intellectual perception, emotion, and participation in the world; whatever it is, beauty is not idealized form isolated from life. Quinn’s view recalls the philosopher John Dewey’s influential treatise Art as Experience, which presents aesthetic experience as a qualitative intensification of life experience. For Dewey, as for Quinn, art lies not merely in the art object but rather manifests through the meaningful experiences of those who perceive it.
Spiral of the Galaxy, 2013
Quinn selected the shell for Spiral of the Galaxy from the British Natural History Museum collection and scanned it in three dimensions to create a digital image of its surface. This file then went to Belgium, where the manufacturing corporation Materialise produced a sculptural prototype through stereolithography, or 3D printing. Enlarged to the work’s final dimensions, the prototype required sectioning into several pieces before shipment to Spain, where the foundry Fademesa produced the mold and cast it in bronze. What results is a figure at once familiar and strange, as shifts in material and scale preserve details of the natural shell and yet transform its mode of inhabiting the world. No longer a delicate object inviting intimate handling, Quinn’s shell has become a solid, architectural form, now occupying public space and affecting the urban ecosystem.
On the medical school campus, Spiral of the Galaxy sits among a system of roads and buildings as well as cultivated green spaces with trees, benches, and some wildlife (Austin’s ever-present grackles and squirrels). Integrated with these surroundings and yet standing in deliberate contrast, the sculpture comes alive through one’s awareness of its interactions with the environment. What sound does the wind make passing over and across this massive bronze? How does its polished inner surface reflect the sky, greenery, buildings, or one’s own face? Such questions may lead to mindful interrogations of ourselves as well as a heightened sense of the ways we too are sited in this place, or even in the world.
The public space the sculpture inhabits is not only physical, however, but also social and discursive. What a community chooses to monumentalize, and how, tells us something about who they are or want to be. Traditional monuments not only portray sanctioned “heroes” but also instruct the public in how to understand them, through explanatory plaques or codified gestures that convey the figure’s cultural authority. Such monuments construct or reinforce public identity narratives in which both agents and manners of virtue arrive pre-prescribed. But, like his sculpture of Alison Lapper, Quinn’s monumental seashell seems to counter that tradition by asking us how we want to be, not telling us who we are. Seashells are ahistorical and acultural, as people across the world have marveled at their organic complexity for millennia; they carry no determinate values but simply are. By honoring the distinctive features of an individual specimen, Spiral of the Galaxy might challenge us to see value in the muteness of pure existence.
Spiral of the Galaxy is easily understood as a direct relative of the small shell it models. And yet through dramatic shifts in material, scale, and context, the work acquires a mythical aspect as well. Like photography or a surrealist readymade, Spiral shivers between the real and the fantastical, and Quinn has called seashells “the most perfect pre-existing sculptural ‘readymades’ in our natural world.” In this he refers not only to the intricacy of their forms but also the wonder of their natural production. As he told Celant, “there are so many amazing things to see in the world that we’ll never discover the end of it.” In Spiral of the Galaxy, the artist invites all to share in this bounty.
Here lies the work’s force, in its potential to affect perception, even possibly a person’s social consciousness. In the context of the medical school campus, some may see in the shell a symbol of the medical profession, as both are complex structures that protect delicate organisms. The first medical school built from scratch within a major academic institution, Dell aims to pioneer innovative cross-disciplinary research and community-driven wellness initiatives. Is it so far-fetched, then, to see the shell as a symbol of the extensive social and biological networks that connect individuals with their communities and the environment?
As Dewey said, “no creature lives merely under its own skin.” Non-human animals, for him, modeled a purity of integration among organisms and their environments basic to life as well as aesthetic experience. Life goes on through interaction with the environment, he observed, and thus every need signals a temporary disruption of that harmony requiring an adjustment to restore equilibrium. Life forms as well as cultures evolve by means of this tension and its resolution, as he said, and art brings that evolution to human consciousness for interpretation.
The seashell is a relic of the mollusk’s total integration with and responsiveness to its environment. Mollusks build their shells via layers of minerals and proteins secreted through their mantles. While environmental factors, such as lack of food, may temporarily halt this process, in good times it continues, and the shell expands to accommodate the animal as it grows. Recent research, led by University of California, Berkeley biophysicist George Oster, considers this mechanism neurological. Although the mollusk lacks a brain, its tongue-like mantle “tastes” the calcium carbonate in the prior layer before depositing the next one. In doing so, the animal acquires a memory of its past as it extrapolates to the next layer, like the way our brains project needs and circumstances into the future. In this way, seashells acquire their unique shapes and surface patterns—a biological process akin to the artistic.
Although Quinn made Spiral alongside several technical collaborators, he considers it a joint effort with the mollusk. “I’m collaborating with these tiny brainless creatures that live at the bottom of the sea, that make these unbelievable symmetrical forms,” he told Celant. “To me, it’s like looking at the archeology of art.” In emphasizing the aesthetic quality of the mollusk’s creation, Quinn yokes art with biological impulses that are normally the reserve of physical sciences. Dewey believed that a disharmony of modern life had resulted from a separation of supposedly material from supposedly mental or spiritual domains—including the artificial separation of art from ordinary life and scientific inquiry. Quinn’s brooding work harmoniously reintegrates these fundamental aspects of human experience.
Robin K. Williams is a doctoral candidate in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.