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Hello, I’m Robin Williams, a PhD candidate in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.
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 resides in a public courtyard at the Dell Medical School as part of Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin. The work is a massive bronze, ten feet high by fourteen feet long and weighs seven tons—an enlarged replica of a particular shell that Quinn once held in his hand.
Quinn selected the shell from the British Natural History Museum collection and scanned it in three dimensions to create a digital image of its surface. This file was enlarged and 3D printed to create the sculptural prototype, and then cast in bronze. What results is a figure at once familiar and strange, as shifts in material and scale preserve unique 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. Integrated within these surroundings and yet standing in deliberate contrast, the sculpture comes alive through its interactions with the environment. What sound does a gust of wind make passing over and across this massive bronze? How does the polished inner surface reflect the sky, greenery, buildings, or one’s own face? Such observations and playful interactions with the sculpture may lead to mindful interrogations of ourselves as well as a heightened sense of how we too are sited in this place, or even in the world.
Throughout his career, Quinn has explored metaphysical and ethical questions pertaining to the substance and meaning of life. Among Quinn’s earliest and most notorious works is Self: a cast of his own head made from ten pints of his own frozen blood—a work exemplifying the existential thrust of his art, his desire to translate the substance of life into image, as he also does in the transfigured seashell, Spiral of the Galaxy.
A related aspect of Quinn’s work is his ability to yoke art and science. Because of Spiral of the Galaxy’s reliance on digital reproduction technologies, its manufacture would have been impossible in previous decades. What is more, the work presents a keen attentiveness to the unique forms of nature common to artists and natural scientists, including medical doctors. In the context of the medical school, some may see in the shell a symbol of the medical profession, as both are complex structures that protect delicate organisms. Yet, by honoring a common and yet unique specimen of the natural world, the work may finally challenge audiences to value every life—human, animal, and the earth itself. As he told curator Germano Celant, “there are so many amazing things to see in the world that we’ll never discover the end of it.” Spiral of the Galaxy invites all to share in this bounty.
In his sculptural series The Archaeology of Art, Marc Quinn creates monumental forms from seashells. The conch for Spiral of the Galaxy is based on one in the British Natural History Museum collection. For Quinn’s work, the conch was scanned in three dimensions, then a mold was created and cast into bronze. The resulting figure is familiar in its proportion and surfaces, but strange because it no longer invites intimate handling. Its altered material and scale transform it into a solid, architectural form that occupies public space and affects the urban ecosystem.
Quinn first came to public attention in the early 1990s through his affiliation with the Young British Artists (YBAs). Among his earliest and best-known works is Self (1991), a cast of his head made from ten pints of Quinn’s frozen blood, an amount equal to the volume in his body. In a 2013 interview, the artist said that the YBA movement had been about “bringing real life into art.” In both Self and Spiral of the Galaxy, Quinn’s urge is holistic and metaphysical, a desire to translate the substance of life into image.
Spiral of the Galaxy is easily understood as a direct relative of the small shell it models. However, by dramatically altering the shell’s material, scale, and surroundings, the work acquires a mythical aspect, quivering between the real and the fantastical. Quinn has called seashells “the most perfect pre-existing sculptural ‘readymades’ in our natural world.” Thus, he refers not only to the graceful intricacy of their forms but also to the wonder of their natural production.
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 find in them: the vital interconnectedness of all life forms across time; the desire to still a passing moment or to live forever; and the prospect of living in harmony with nature and other people.
Location: Health Learning Building Courtyard