Marc Quinn: Held by Desire

Marc Quinn Portrait 2013

'Past, Present, Future', 2013
‘Past, Present, Future’, 2013

He’s better known as one of the YBAs who ruled the ‘90s art scene, shocking audiences with self-portraits made out of nine pints of his frozen blood, and his unmissable monolithic installations. Earlier this year he unveiled a giant gravity defying sculpture of his infant son in the Singapore Gardens by the Bay. And for the 55th Venice Biennale he got Venetians and the Catholic Church in a tizzy with a giant inflatable sculpture of Alison Lapper installed near the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. But if you want to see the diversity and breadth of Marc Quinn’s interests and skill as an artist, head over to White Cube Hong Kong where the artist recently unveiled his first ever Hong Kong solo show, Held By Desire.

Spread out across two floors of the White Cube space Quinn explores “our relationships to our bodies and to the physical and cultural world around us,” with a series of works created out of material as diverse as jade, bronze, paint on canvas, and onyx. Altogether the exhibition is an eclectic mix of styles and objects; Quinn is an artist who has never felt the need to restrict himself to one particular medium or style. But nothing is random in this show. Woven through the exhibition is the overarching narrative of the cycle of life, nature, and time as Quinn revisits familiar themes: the relation between art and science; the human body; life and its preservation; and beauty and death. Quinn also continues to make good use of his passion and knowledge of art history and science.

Directly inspired by the visit to Taipei’s National Palace Museum and encased inside a glass museum display case, is ‘Towards a Map of the Universe’. Made from a rare piece of jade it is intricately carved out into a detailed depiction of the artist’s own retina and inspired by traditional jade discs. Standing on a plinth metres away from the jade is my favourite work in the show, ‘The Invention of Carving’. It’s a visual pun on another famous work in the same museum’s collection, a found jadeite stone that looks like a slab of meat. A delicate pale pink onyx, it is sculpted into a leg of ham in a vice, in parts smooth and flawless, in others carved away so roughly that it calls to mind Ice Age animal bone carvings. It fuses our desire for food and art.

The centrepiece and namesake of the exhibition, a bronze bonsai tree, ‘Held by Desire (Chinese Juniper)’, is sculpted so meticulously and is so detailed that I initially dismissed it as a spray-painted bonsai. It isn’t. Rather, here Quinn has used the latest technologies in 3-D scanning and printing and married them with century-old artistic techniques of casting. The tree is “a microcosm of our relationship with nature,” symbolic of the exhibition’s main preoccupation with our desire to shape the universe and control it. “It’s about illusion and control of nature. That’s what bonsai is essentially, the idea that we can control the world. You take something from nature and try to mould it but ultimately it has its own will and life,” explains Quinn. Standing before the Turneresque painting of churning water, ‘Before and After Humans’, the solitary bonsai with its twisted tortured branches recalls one of Caspar David Friedrich’s haunting romantic landscapes.

In one eye-catching painting, ‘Past, Present, Future’ (2013), shown at the 55th Venice Biennale earlier this year, a nude pregnant model, Lara Stone, reclines against a backdrop of fleshy charcuterie, flesh on flesh, staring back at the viewer in a pose and manner that recalls both Manet’s ‘Olympia’, and Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’. I thought it was supposed to be sexual. “Umm, no it isn’t actually. Maybe you’re projecting,” offers Quinn. It was an awkward rather than an insightful moment. “The meat is like a tiny Rembrandt painting. It recalls a vanitas painting”, explains Quinn. But it’s not all clever art references. “The work is an optimistic celebration of beauty and the cycle of life. There’s a background of dead meat, and the living flesh of the model, and flesh being made in her.”

Quinn’s more familiar flower works are also littered about the gallery. There’s one of his giant bronze flower sculptures, ‘Stealth Desire’, 2013, a beautiful black polished orchid, so delicate and fragile and at the same time sexual resembling the female reproductive system (I was assured that this one was indeed sexual). A smaller one sits under a delicate glass dome, like a memento mori curiosity. And in the exhibition room at the back of the gallery hangs one of Quinn’s colourful hyper-realist sensual and lush flower paintings, “porn pictures your mum can look at.” There’s an object of desire for everyone in this show.

Check out the exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong, on until 4 January, 2013

50 Connaught Rd
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2592 2000

Read my earlier interview with Marc Quinn for Hong Kong Tatler here:
See and be Scene

Background: 'Before and After Humans', 2013 Foreground: 'Held by Desire (Chinese Juniper 114)',  2013
Background: ‘Before and After Humans’, 2013 Foreground: ‘Held by Desire (Chinese Juniper 114)’, 2013
Background: 'Flesh Painting (On Carpaccio)' 2013 Foreground: 'The Invention of Carving', 2013
Background: ‘Flesh Painting (On Carpaccio)’ 2013 Foreground: ‘The Invention of Carving’, 2013
'Stealth Desire (Etymology)', 2013
‘Stealth Desire (Etymology)’, 2013



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at