Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Adam's Pussy/Eve's Dick: The Art of Marc Quinn



Buck (vulva - l) and Alannah (penis - r)

British sculptor Marc Quinn
is one of the hot names on the world art scene. He's part of the YBA group (Young British Artists) which came up during the 1990s and most famously included superstar Damien Hirst (who is generally acknowledged to be the richest artist in the world!). Quinn specializes in figurative sculpture, albeit with some rather untraditional figures, including a stone bust of his own head tinted with 10 pints of his own blood (which if you didn't know, looks just like a red mold of someone's face).


Bloody good fun!

The smell of success
Quinn has had numerous one man shows in museums and major galleries in Europe and the U.S. including an unprecedented exhibit at the British museum which displayed his gold sculpture called "Siren" (an image of supermodel Kate Moss in an impossibly twisty yoga pose) juxtaposed in the same gallery as some of their most famous stolen ancient greek statuary. Quinn has also been widely known for his large scale sculpture called Alison Lepper Pregnant, which was prominently displayed in Trafalgar square for several years. The statue of Ms. Lepper's naked, yes, very pregnant body generated much discussion because she was born with no arms and very shortened legs. While she very much supported Quinn's statue (she is a well-known artist herself) there was some criticism of the statue from the art establishment and disability community as "distasteful" and "exploitive".


The full sized statue of Alison Lepper just opposite
Lord Nelson's gigantic phallic column

Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice and...
His current exhibit at the White Cube Hoxton Square in London (which is one of the world's premiere galleries for contemporary art) is called Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas. It's described as "depicting people who have undergone extreme levels of plastic surgery and transformation including hormone therapy, tattoos, piercing, skin bleaching, hair dying as well as implants and transplants." (and curiously, they're all Americans!) It includes several busts of Michael Jackson (done around the time of his death) which display him pre and post plastic surgery, a statue of Dennis Abner (known as "The Catman" because he had his entire body tattooed and his teeth modified to resemble a hellish-looking cat), a "bust" of Chelsea Charms—stripper and adult Internet model with the world's largest breast implants and, more conservatively, Pamela Anderson. Three of the subjected depicted are bronze, life-size statues of trans porn stars Buck Angel, and Alannah Starr as well as a statue of the 'famed' FTM pregnant man Thomas Beatie.

I'm Van Gogh, I'm Da Vinci!!!
Quinn states, "They are ordinary people who have become extraordinary people. They have acted out what is on the inside on their outsides." He further considers them artists using their bodies as a medium. As he told the art critic from the Manchester Guardian newspaper, "just don't call it a freak show." It surprises me Quinn would be averse to that title—and what's wrong with a freak show?

The smell of success
As Quinn tells it, "He discovered (sic) Buck Angel on the Internet by typing into the search engine the words plastic surgery and transformation." After contacting Buck (who knew about Quinn and was excited about the prospect of being sculpted by him) the FTM porn performer recommended MTF porn performer Alannah Starr as a subject. She was someone with whom he'd done a genre-busting sex scene in a film called Allanah Starr's Big Boob Adventures. Both flew to London to have casts taken and to pose for Quinn.

Quinn has the two hyper-detailed figures holding hands like a modern day Adam and Eve— albeit an Adam with a pussy (as Buck likes to advertise his genitals) and a voluptuous "shemale" Eve with a demure penis. While Starr is well known for having had 60 cosmetic surgeries and nearly 300 procedures (although she is ironically a "pre-op"). Angel has only had FTM top surgery.


One of the smaller Buck pieces being
examined by an art connoisseur

One person's extreme is another's minimalism
As someone who's had a fair amount of transition-related facial & body modification myself (in some ways far LESS than Ms. Starr and, in other ways, um, MORE) and feels rather ordinary in most aspects, it's hard to connect with someone like Buck Angel being an extraordinary example of someone modified through plastic surgery. If the idea was really to show examples of incredible body modification, then surely a trans man who's had phalloplasty and all that entails would be a more extraordinary example. Does Buck's inclusion has more to do with being a "transsexual porn star" and having a pussy and rather less to do with body modification? (although I can well imagine the general public not as familiar with trans people might see him as being more extraordinary)

Buck's bronze figure more resembles the plastic-coated dead bodies of Gunther von Hagens than something out of classical sculpture—there is little life emanating from it. The featured man-pussy seems rather "anti-climatic" mostly a Las Vegas version Greek and Roman statues whose cock and ball were so frequently whacked off by the early Christians (yes, it was they who did it and not the Victorians, Vandals or Vikings). For what's perhaps intended to be a striking image, apart from the ID as trans porn star part, Buck looks quite mundane, like someone who'd have his car up on blocks in the front yard or fiddling with his Harley.


Untitled by Kiki Smith

Look, mommy's got a iddy-bitty wiener!
Alannah Starr comes off more like a naked soccer mom than a porn performer who's had 60 plastic surgeries. Her middle-aged spread and floppy right breast seem very homey and motherly instead of transgressive. Buck and Alannah resemble naked Americans at a swinger's nudist colony waiting to go in the hot tub. Her penis isn't terribly arresting to anyone who's seen trans trans porn actors. Compare this sculpture to artist Kiki Smith's more organic-looking rough hewn untitled sculpture from 1995. A clearly female figure is hanging against the wall falling forward from her waist with long, flowing hair, her hands, spread, seemingly nailed to the wall in a kind of crucifixion. What most viewers of this quite famous piece don't know (unless you look at it very close up) is the woman has a penis. It creates a kind of hidden mystery as opposed to the almost garish Quinn figures whose shine feels like one of those "golden" bling license plates you see on Escalades or Hummers.


Hint, this is NOT
Michelangelo's David

Sit-ups or knocked-ups?
The large sculpture of Thomas Beatie is a curious piece. Again, in representing transformation through plastic surgery as Quinn claims, it isn't really evident in this work. Yes, Beatie had top surgery and has slightly noticeable chest scars but unless you're aware of the back story, they wouldn't scream out at you. Even the pregnant belly is less than shocking—you see men with large pot bellies nearly as big (although, not on an otherwise slender body). While the rather static pose has Beatie cradling his very pregnant tummy with a bland peaceful expression of parental pride, he almost looks as if he could be good-naturedly taking out a Hefty™ bag of garbage. What I noticed most about the piece is his boxer shorts. The draping of these overly washed cotton shorts beautifully reminds me of some of the flowing fabric carved out of stone found on Bernini statuary or in greek statues and is, curiously, the most lovely rendering on any of the statues which are, for the most part, rather crass.

It's all for sale
Ultimately, looking at this art, it's hard to fathom Quinn's artistic intent. If it's for beauty, then it surely can must be a beauty of the common everyday details like the folds in Beatie's droopy drawers. One could say it's about making the supposedly transgressive mundane, but I imagine that, to the largely non-trans crowds which will view these works, they will seem as if they're pushing boundaries. So once again, trans people are displayed to a wider audience for shock value, to question the largely white, well-to-do viewers' assumptions about normality or, perhaps, to provide comfort in their sense of their own comparative normality. It's not terribly clear, as art usually isn't.


Jeff Koon's loving tribute to... money?


Julian Schnabel's got a Lamborghini!
In so many ways, they remind me of capitalist/shyster artist Jeff Koons and his most (in)famous work, Michael Jackson and His Chimp Bubbles. The large, kitschy ceramic sculpture is almost overwhelming in its vacuousness but ultimately makes some kind of statement about race... with a black man who's turned white next to a chimp portrayed as his little son. It's either a profound comment about our own bathed-in-racism perceptions, or glorifying the very racism it seems to be pushing in our face. Koons pretty much gives a shit. Although we, in our post-modernist world, like to believe art is from a more thoughtful, perhaps enlightened (if pretentious) viewpoint, the reality is artists like Koons (who is often mentioned as a prime influence on the YBA artists) are no less influenced by our frequently racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic culture than anyone else. It is, after all, a luxury commodity and packaged hipness translates to dollars. Right next to your trophy wife's silkscreened Warhol portrait is your collection of "famous transgenders."

Trans-corporeal... as in, not covered by health insurance
The artist states, "The world is so weird that you don't have to make things up, you just find things." So, in other words, he does find these subjects "weird?" He also wrote, "The show is about a topsy-turvy world." Hmm, is that a good thing or problematic? The White Cube catalog which accompanies the exhibit muses the sculptures are, "'trans-corporeal' - throwing the very notion of identity into question, exposing it as a fragile, complex and multi-layered construction, interminably co-existent with their external physical selves." Can we shorten that to "tranny-corpy"? The catalog also states:
[The statues] open up a provocative new chapter in [Quinn's] exploration of the relationship between corporeality and spirituality - fundamentally addressing the notion of identity by asking: is one more or less one's self after cosmetic surgery?
But the reality is, if you weren't informed who these three subjects were, would you really come away from the exhibit with such assumptions? These thoughts are projected by a cissexual viewer onto Quinn's stated choice of models, and not necessarily inherent in the works. By contrast, Kiki Smith felt no need of bestowing a title or explaining her woman (who also incidentally has a penis). As so often happens with trans-related art made by non-trans people, they feel the need to explain and give context yet only end up creating art about their own voyeurism. I suspect, at its very heart, that's very much what Quinn's work is about. Personally, I think trans bodies deserve better.


Man-donna and child?


Marc Quinn's show is at the White Cube Hoxton Square gallery, 48 Hoxton Square, N1 6PB, London through June 26, 2010. Closest Tube Station: Old Street

7 comments:

  1. in this blog some pics are very good. i like specially Michal Jackson pics.......
    cosmetic surgery

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  2. "[The statues] open up a provocative new chapter in [Quinn's] exploration of the relationship between corporeality and spirituality - fundamentally addressing the notion of identity by asking: is one more or less one's self after cosmetic surgery?"

    "These thoughts are projected by a cissexual viewer onto Quinn's stated choice of models, and not necessarily inherent in the works."

    I'd say that Quinn is indeed projecting onto his trans subjects. How does being trans and modifying your body destabilize identity at all? It actually reifies it, because if it weren't for a stable core identity there would be no need to transition. This just seems like another pomo appropriation of trans identity to me. (I do like that Kiki Smith piece though;)

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  3. what an astute piece of writing , thank you Gina. This guy , Quinn is a voyeur , I find his work disingenious at best, i want to kick him at worst. Maybe these are extremes to him ? Has he been living under a rock ? This piece you wrote ought to be published in an Art Review Magazine. I had not heard of this guy , nor this show, and really appreciate this review and illustrations - and i agree with your observation 110%

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  4. I've heard it said that great art is about getting people to see things differently. If we look at art through historical eyes it's the artists that broke free of the traditionally accepted expectations that made the most profound impact.

    Sometimes the artist's purpose seems to be to try and shock people. Get them talking, "did you see what David created?" A lesson not lost on PT Barnum or Jerry Springer. Of course no one is calling them great artists.

    Trans identity is sadly still seen as freakish and shocking. We are certainly worthy subjects of art but IMHO what makes art special still hinges more on aesthetics than subject matter or medium. Not that subject matter isn't important. But shouldn't the subject be treated with taste and respect if it is to be considered truly worthy of calling itself art?

    Of course this is my very subjective personal opinion as a graphic artist. One could consider the remaking of themselves as performance art and why not? I transitioned to make myself more pleasing to me. A better creation I wish to share with the world as well.

    Maybe everyone should consider themselves works of art still in progress. As trans folk I like to think we show the world that creating who you want to be is an art far more valuable than anything in a gallery or museum.

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  5. Teri, there are pieces by Quinn which I absolutely love... especially his monumental floating statue of his infant son called "World" http://alturl.com/h9o4

    ...the aspects of his art which involve finding "weird stuff" and changing the materials or context and selling it for lots of money isn't especially original or groundbreaking. There are a lot of very successful artists doing the same shtick—some better than others. I happen to think Kiki Smith is a much better and more personal artist than Marc Quinn and she doesn't rely on catalogue explanations of his work, it truly speaks for itself. As to the "transition as a work of art" I would never say it's a corrupt concept just that, for myself, I never really thought about the aesthetics of it all other than... will I be able to safely live as a woman and how will this fit in with that need? I do have issues when performance artists do body modification as art (such as extreme piercing) and try to equate it to trans identities. While I know some trans people are seemingly addicted to plastic surgery (Alannah Starr or Gia Darling come to mind) I truly don't think most trans people see it as other than a therapeutic means to an end.

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  6. Gina, loved the floating baby! I tend to enjoy work that makes me smile in awe. Sometimes it's just going to a place like the MOMA and being reminded that the process of creating can be quite fun too.

    I doubt few ever transition seeing themselves as a work of art in progress. As you said we do these things more on a therapeutic level. Of course creating art can be very therapeutic too. :o)

    As trans folk we are driven to create ourselves as we feel we should be seen. Isn't art created my a somewhat similar inner drive? Both are forms of self expression. Both hope to be accepted and pass the judgment of critics.

    Performance art? How does one define that? I'm still working on "art" and "woman".

    Here's what I'm thinking. (currently) :o) Performance can be seen as an act, or as an act of creating something more real and tangible. To perform a work of music for instance as compared to something as macabre as you described. My personal taste in art leans toward the more aesthetically pleasing.

    Some people have a taste for the macabre in art. Francis Bacon, Bosch, and newer folks like Mark Ryden. Not me.

    Sadly some see trans folks as fitting into the macabre world of freaks and grotesques. It's no wonder we tend to hide being trans.

    I'm still working out how to show people that we are just common folk. Not freaks. As an artist an performer I try to let the fact I am trans be of little consequence. Definitely a work in progress.

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  7. Satan's useful idiots hard at work...

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