This article takes its lead from a recent set of sculptural works by the internationally renowned British artist, Marc Quinn: All About Love (2016–2017). The twelve statues in this series were displayed for the first time in a special installation at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Drawn from Life – the name given to the exhibition – ran for almost six months (28 March–23 September 2017): it received widespread attention not only on account of the works themselves, but also because of their installation amid the various rooms of Soane’s Museum (e.g., Figs. 1, 2).Footnote 1

Fig. 1
figure 1

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Hot’ (2016–2017), as displayed in the Monk’s Parlour of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 213 h × 64.5 w × 67.5 d (cm).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Untrimmed’ (2016–2017), detail, as displayed in the corridor of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 223 h × 62 w × 67 d (cm).

Quinn’s work must interest anyone concerned with the ‘classical tradition’.Footnote 2 Born in 1964, Quinn rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s, as part of the so-called ‘Young British Artist’ movement (alongside the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). After attending Millfield School (a private boarding-school in Somerset), Quinn studied history and the history of art at Robinson College (University of Cambridge), graduating in 1991. He then served as sculptural assistant to Barry Flanagan – under whom he learned many of the casting techniques that would define his future œuvre. It was during the early 1990s that Quinn established his name in the British art world – above all, for his experiments with media: particularly famous is the series of portraits named Self (begun in 1991), made from the artist’s own frozen blood (e.g., Fig. 3).Footnote 3 Quinn’s works have subsequently been acquired in collections across the globe, including the Tate (London), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) and the Centre Pomipdou (Paris). A selected list of exhibited works is included as an appendix at the end of this article.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, Self (1991). Blood (artist’s), stainless steel, perspex and refrigeration equipment; 208 h × 63 w × 63 d (cm).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, Siren (2008). 18 ct. gold; 88 h × 65 w × 50 d (cm).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Photograph by the author

Installation of Siren (cf. Fig. 4) as part of the Statuephilia exhibition at the British Museum in 2008.

Quinn’s sculptures, paintings and drawings have explored various themes – among them, mankind’s relationship with nature, ideas and ideals of beauty, and the construction of modern social and cultural values. Throughout his career, though, the artist has also looked to classical antiquity as point of departure. His work has interrogated – above all through a sculptural medium – the legacy of Greek and Roman art, as well as its role in constructing the western aesthetic sensorium. With each intervention, Quinn invites viewers to look at ancient models anew, at once celebrating the aesthetic power of classical sculpture while interrogating its abiding cultural purchase. Perhaps more than any other living sculptor, Quinn has likewise turned to ancient models of visual representation to explore the ‘modern’: to challenge perceived binaries between nature and culture, for example, and to probe ideological distinctions between form and meaning, surface and depth, and body and mind.

The All About Love statues very much continue Quinn’s fascination with the classical past. The statues are life-casts, and explore the artist’s relationship with his partner, Jenny Bastet (cf. Fig. 6). But for all their careful attention to naturalistic detail, the statues are constructed as self-aware fragments, materializing a tension between the real and the manufactured, as indeed between past and present.Footnote 4 The temporary installation in Sir John Soane’s Museum was intrinsic to the thinking. This is not the first time Quinn has exhibited his work alongside ancient statues: in 2008, for example, his solid gold statue of Kate Moss (Siren) was installed at the entrance to the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery; the back of the statue was turned away from the Parthenon marbles so as to gaze ahead at the crouching Lely Venus (Figs. 4, 5).Footnote 5 The installation in Sir John Soane’s Museum has a different effect. Once again, the juxtaposition throws a spotlight on the connections between antiquity and modernity. In this case, though, the encounter throws the very trope of fragmentation into relief.Footnote 6

Fig. 6
figure 6

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Photograph demonstrating the production technique – the life-casting of Marc Quinn and Jenny Bastet for All About Love.

Rather than offer a survey or critical interpretation of Drawn from Life, the text that follows took advantage of the opportunity to chat informally with Marc Quinn about his recent work, and to ask him about his recourse to classical traditions more generally. My interest here forms part of a larger project on contemporary artistic responses to the art of the classical past, including a 2018 exhibition (that will incorporate Quinn’s work) at King’s College London.Footnote 7 The project stems from a resurgence of interest in visual approaches to classical ‘reception studies’,Footnote 8 and a series of publications on the classical tradition in modern and contemporary art in particular.Footnote 9 But it also seeks to initiate new sorts of conversation between scholars and artists. What is it about classical art that still so captivates the contemporary cultural imagination? How can contemporary responses help us to see classical art with new eyes? And what can such modern-day responses – situated against the backdrop of others, over a period of some two thousand years – tell us about current cultural preoccupations?


MS (Michael Squire) : Marc, one of the aspects that has long defined your work is the knowing and reflective response to ancient Greek and Roman precedents. What is it about classical art that so intrigues you?

MQ (Marc Quinn): For me, classical sculpture is, in a way, the origin of figurative sculpture – it has given us the figurative sculptural language that we know. But what is interesting about classical sculpture is that it’s really about the past, about time. Because so many of the sculptures are damaged – they’re incomplete, with bits broken off them – they speak about a kind of loss. They make us think of a lost era – one that we can perhaps imagine as more perfect, better than the current… I think that’s why people so like the idea of ‘classical antiquity’ too, because there’s a kind of sense of a lost golden age, yet one somehow still with us.

MS:So the classical is about the pastbut also the past in the present?

MQ: Yes, exactly. That’s what makes it so rich.

MS:And ‘classical’ for you meanswhat exactly? Is it the sculpture of a particular time (the ‘Classical’ artwith capital ‘C’of the fifth and fourth centuries BC?)? A particular set of formal featuresthe ‘naturalistic’, the nude, a rendering of the body? Is it something defined by time‘ancient’or something more genericdoes the ‘classical’ encompass the art of the Renaissance, for example?

MQ: No, it’s something ‘ancient.’ But the ‘classical’ is also something broad, open to different definitions. Yes, it refers to Classical Greece – to a particular period within ancient history. But do you include Archaic sculpture too, or Roman art? The ‘classical’ is all antiquity, but still that’s not really what the ‘classical’ actually is. It’s an open and rich category.

MS:That ‘openness’ takes us to the Drawn from Life show, and to the twelve All About Love statues installed in Sir John Soane’s Museum (Figs. 1 , 2 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 ). I’ve heard you describe your work here as a kind of ‘casual classicism’.Footnote 10What did you mean by that?

Fig. 7
figure 7

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Eternal’ (2016–2017), as displayed in the Breakfast Room of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 221 h × 64 w × 45 d (cm).

Fig. 8
figure 8

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Breathe’ (2016–2017), as displayed in the South Drawing Room of Sir John Soane’s Museum, with convex glass mirror behind. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 241 h × 64 w × 63 d (cm).

Fig. 9
figure 9

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Life’ and ‘Shines’ (2016–2017), as displayed in the Library of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 219 h × 62 w × 64 d, 213 h × 56 w × 48 d (cm).

Fig. 10
figure 10

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Life’ (2016–2017). Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 219 h × 62 w × 64 d (cm).

Fig. 11
figure 11

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Lovely’ (2016–2017), as seen from the back. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 221 h × 62 w × 68 d (cm).

Fig. 12
figure 12

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Breathe’ (2016–2017), detail. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 241 h × 64 w × 63 d (cm).

Fig. 13
figure 13

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Gold’ (2016–2017), as displayed alongside a plaster cast of the Medici Venus in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 222 × 69 w × 63 d (cm).

Fig. 14
figure 14

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, All About Love ‘Heaven’ (2016–2017), as displayed in the Foyle Space of Sir John Soane’s Museum, with a view out to a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere. Glass reinforced polyester and biresin polyurethane, stainless steel plate and rod, split shaft collars, softwood and far eastern ply; 214 h × 66 w × 76 d (cm).

MQ: I think it’s about how the classical is incorporated. Many of the sculptures in the show are based on particular poses from ancient statues: the arms of a Capitoline Venus, the frontal leg of a standing kouros, a pointing finger like the one from the colossal hand of Constantine in the Capitoline Museums (cf. Fig. 15).

Fig. 15
figure 15

Photograph by the author

Fragments of the fourth-century colossal acrolithic statue of the Emperor Constantine, as displayed in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the Musei Capitolini at Rome.

MS: And ‘casual’?

MQ: Well, I mean, I know lots of these materials. Before making the statues, I looked through books on classical statuary. I’d forget about things. But then, when thinking about poses, soft versions of them emerged. So I guess that’s what I meant with ‘casual classicism’: there are classical antecedents, classical debts, but in a very natural and naturalistic way. With a lightness of touch.

MS: Do you want to begin by describing the twelve statues?

MQ: The sculptures are made from fibreglass – but also made from life: they’re life casts of myself and my Muse, Jenny Bastet. Each sculpture is cast in two parts, the first comprising the legs, the second the upper body. The legs are Jenny’s alone. But with the torsos Jenny and I are holding each other in a certain way – always differently. So my arms, and only my arms, are in the sculpture, combined with Jenny’s torso; as a result, the arms appear to be disembodied or floating, rather like the parts of a broken sculpture (where the body itself has been snapped off, and you’re just left with the arms interacting with another sculpture). The combination creates a mystery – a kind of absence. The back of the sculpture is also left open. When we made the mould it only went round to the side of the torso because obviously we had to get out of it. So it’s possible to look inside the sculpture from the back: you see how it’s held up; you find this kind of abstract form in a way (cf. Fig. 11). The open back of the sculpture makes for a strange hollow shape: it’s something abstract, almost like the unconscious of a sculpture. Each of the sculptures is mounted on a metal pole, placed on top of a wooden crate. In a way, the sculptures are about a relationship between two people: like an artwork, that relationship is a delicate thing, something that can be looked after, but something that can also be easily toppled or broken.

MS:So something precious and delicateI’ve read you talk here of a ‘frozen moment’Footnote 11?

MQ: Yes, ‘precious’, exactly. But also something immediate. I think a life cast is a very immediate way of making figurative sculpture. It’s more like performance art in a way: you know, we have to stand in a certain position, the silicone rubber is put on top of us, and then we used plaster to keep the mould in shape. You end up with a mould from which you can make a sculpture that has a kind of reality and an unreality about it.

MS:And then you had to get out of the mouldto escape?

MQ: It’s a laborious process. The non-toxic, silicon dental rubber is spread over the part of the body being cast, and then a plaster case is built around it – to make sure the shape is held when the rubber comes off. When the rubber is on, we’re stuck together – like Siamese twins. The mould becomes very heavy, and we’re bound together in this test of endurance. We’d support each other. But we’d also irritate each other. All of that somehow comes out in the statues.

MS:In the exhibition you were keen to share the process of manufacture with your audience. One of the rooms upstairs shows one of those pink silicone moulds as part of the installation, accompanied by photographs of the casting process (cf. Fig. 6 ). The images in the catalogue frequently show your workshop team dressed in white coatssurrounded by tubs of gooey liquid silicon, potions, scalpels.Footnote 12It all seems very surgicalalmost Frankenstein-esque, in a way.

MQ: There is something surgical, yes. The reality is that the statues are made using dental silicone for the moulds – you get incredible detail, like the pores of the skin, the hairs of a hand. But there’s also an unreality about the result: the moulds move a little, they become slightly deformed as we escape from them. This gives the statues a baroque air – a little bit like wind is passing through them. The body itself is like drapery.

MS:And yet, perversely, this ‘baroqueness’ only adds to the eerie, naturalistic air of the works. When I was in the museum, in the Monk’s Parlour (Fig. 1 ), I remember the arms of the statue named ‘Hot’ moving slightly when I walked around itfrom the moving wooden floorboards….

MQ: Yes, exactly. The actual material used for the sculptures is a resin – two sorts, a runnier resin is first used for the hands; once that is dry a thicker fibreglass resin is placed on top. Once the resin is dried we have to break the plaster mould to remove it. The statues have these little ‘skirts’ on them too (cf. Figs. 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13). It was a chance feature – something that happened as a result of the making process. Jenny tucked a bin-bag into her knickers – actually, to create a sort of plastic lining, something to stop the rubber dripping down onto her legs. In making the casts we included the first six inches or so of that lining as well. We thought about cutting this excess off. But then, when I saw it, I thought this is really interesting: it looks like a piece of drapery from a classical sculpture.

MS:It reminded me of the upper ridge of drapery on the ‘Venus de Milo’ (Fig. 16 )used to cover the join between the two blocks of stone.Footnote 13

Fig. 16
figure 16

Photograph by the author

Hellenistic ‘Venus de Milo’ statue, as displayed in the Musée du Louvre in Paris; marble, 202 h (cm).

MQ: Yes, or a Dégas tutu.

MS: But here, unlike the ‘Venus de Milo’, both the upper and lower parts of each statue are naked.

MQ: And again there’s a vulnerability. That ‘dress’, if you like, does not cover the pubic area: there’s the vulnerability of her being completely naked.

MS:And we see the female genitalssomething conspicuously absent in ancient images after the Knidian Aphrodite (sculpted by Praxiteles in the mid-fourth century BC).

MQ: ‘Nakedness’ seems to me important. There’s a difference between the ‘naked’ and the ‘nude’: these sculptures are more naked than nude, I think.

MS: Exposed?

MQ: Exposed. And, again, vulnerable. Emotionally, the result is something quite raw. But the rawness is also something technical. I didn’t remove many of the faults – the problems that come from casting, and so on: I’ve left all of those features in there.

MS:So what is it about this tension between the ‘naturalistic’ and the ‘non-naturalistic’between the ‘believable’ and ‘true to life’ on the one hand, and between the ‘unreal’ and ‘baroque’ on the otherthat interests you? You go out of your way to capture anatomical detailshair, veins, goose-bumps (as on the buttocks of ‘Heaven’ [Fig. 14 ]).Footnote 14But you also puncture the illusionthrough the ungrounded appearance of the statues, their missing feet and fragmented limbs, the revelation of sculptural form as hollow ‘skin’, the visible steel supports….

MQ: Well, I think if you have sufficient ‘believable’ prompts – signposts, almost – then you just accept everything as real. Take ‘Heaven’ – displayed in the Foyle Space, directly behind Soane’s large cast of the Belvedere Apollo (Fig. 14). When you are in the Foyle Space, and you look past my sculpture to the Belvedere Apollo, suddenly that statue – which had seemed so realistic – looks completely abstract, idealized, simplified, not like a real body at all. That’s the thing: our view of the Apollo changes besides the life cast, because a life cast is not an ideal. It’s a kind of reality – much more suited to our age than the ideal, I think.

MS: So it’s the juxtaposition between the two that’s important?

MQ: By having the two next to each other, you really do see the difference.

MS:The tension between the real and the unreal goes hand in hand with the ambiguity of the different poses. Is this wavering of gesturebetween holding and supporting on the one hand, and fighting or restraining on the othersomething intentional?

MQ: Ambiguity is almost more interesting than resolution, I think. It’s the same reason we like fragments: they are an ambiguous thing; they preserves a mystery. We can fill in the blanks for ourselves. That’s why it was important that these sculptures don’t have heads either: if they had heads, then we’d interact with them differently – you’d just spend the whole time looking at the face. The fact that there’s no head makes each statue more universal – I wanted to put the expression in the hands.

MS:Interestingthose comments makes me think about your own portraits in the Self series, to which we’ll come back later. But, sticking with All About Love, let me ask about the hands: these are of course the parts that ancient sculpture most often lacks. Arms are missing, and hands are broken off. But in your statues the hands come in for the most detailed sort of anatomical attention (e.g., Figs. 2 , 12 ).

MQ: I think it’s probably an unconscious thing, a reversal of the normal situation. The feet are gone. The whole of my body is gone. The head is gone. Yet the hands remain.

MS:And the sense of tactilitythe gesture of embraceis brought to the fore. Is there something programmatic at work here? I’m thinking about the difficulty western artists have always with feet and handsnot least in the Renaissance. But I’m also thinking about classical sculpture’s ‘haptic’ appealsomething we all too easily forget within the museum. Until last year, the Lely ‘Crouching Venus’ in the British Museumagainst which you juxtaposed your Siren sculpture in 2008 (Fig. 5 )was displayed next to a sign saying ‘Please do not touch!.’

MQ: Absolutely. One of the things I like about fibreglass – the medium in which these sculptures are cast – is its feel. It’s a very contemporary material, usually associated with car body shops and the like. It’s incredibly strong. And yet, when you touch it, it has this kind of egg-shelly quality: even though it’s incredibly strong, the statues feel very delicate.

MS: Which brings me back to those boxes on which the statues are installed: these are no standard ‘plinths’, but instead everyday plywood crates, complete with labels like ‘Keep upright’, ‘Fragile’, ‘Keep away from heat.’

MQ: Yes, they are transport crates – functional things used to move artworks. As I said earlier, the sculptures are about a relationship between two people, and like an artwork that relationship has a fragility about it. But what’s in the crates? Obviously they can’t fit the sculptures inside….

MS: So what is inside the crates?

MQ: I don’t know. Nobody knows. As I say, it’s almost like the unconscious of the sculpture – or something like that.

MS:I sense it’s the delicacy of these various ‘relationships’ that’s important to you. The relationship with antiquity. The relationship with sculptural form. The relationship with Jenny (after all, they’re All About Love). Given what you just said earlier about ‘universals’, why did you decide to insert yourselvesyou and Jennyinto the sculptures?

MQ: I think it’s about ‘adding’ – infusing them with real life, with a true story. But the works are also about making something concrete. If I’m in a loving relationship with someone, and I make sculptures about that relationship, I thought that there would be more reality in the statues if they are based on us as opposed to two random people. It’s almost like a superstitious thing. If you love somebody, the work becomes a monument to that relationship in some way: whatever happens in the future, it preserves something beautiful, something universal, something eternal. I don’t think audiences need to know anything about the specific story of our relationship. But I am saying that if two people are in a relationship they will instinctively hold each other differently than two actors or models.

MS: That takes us also to the issue of the series. We are talking here not just about one statue, but twelve. How important is the repetition and variation from one sculpture to the next?

MQ: I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in one statue. I felt there was more to say – and different poses to try out. When we got to twelve, I thought that was perhaps now enough. I mean, I could have gone on forever. But it’s quite nice just to stop at a certain point. And I think that they are all different from each other. There’s no repetition, and each is unique.

MS:And yet they fit togetherin terms of their form, production methods and juxtaposed display. I’m wondering here about your take on the ‘formula’: of course, the whole history of classical art is about adopting and adapting motifs, schemata, positions….

MQ: Classical art is much more commercial than people think – and I don’t mean necessarily commercial just in the sense that people bought it. Once you had a great version of something, there seems to have been a market for it. It was wanted for different temples, different palaces, different towns, different cities. The ancient world was much less connected than ours – it was without internet, for one thing. Unless you go from Asia Minor to North Africa, you’re not going to see the same statues in your town square. I’m thinking about the Prada show two years ago, with its statues of the same subject from all over the world. Don’t you think there was a much greater sense of these things being sent out – almost like sculpture factories?

MS:In some waysand we do have some evidence of making plaster ‘casts’ of statues in the Roman world.Footnote 15

MQ: Yes, but I’m also thinking much earlier. Even in the Archaic Greek world – some 500 years earlier.

MS:We’ve spoken quite a lot about antiquity, so let me move forward in time. It would of course have been possible to give these statues ancient names. But you instead opted to give each sculpture a one-word title taken from Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’.Footnote 16

MQ: Yes. And I then just chose as titles words that wouldn’t sound like they came from that poem. A sort of hidden reference.

MS:Re-reading Shakespeare’s poem, I was struck by the final couplet of the sonnet, ‘so long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ Was that important to you?

MQ: Yes, that too. You take something that’s fleeting and delicate – something that is potentially ephemeral, like a relationship – and then you make it last forever….

MS:The idea of ‘giving life’ also made me think of the famous myth of Pygmalionthe story of the sculptor who made his statue, falls in love with it, and longs for the statue to come to life.Footnote 17In Ovid’s version we hear how Venus fulfills Pygmalion’s prayerthe statue comes to life beneath the artist’s ‘probing finger’; she is touched, and she touches in turn… Did the myth form part of your thinking?

MQ: Not deliberately. I mean, yes, obviously there is something about bringing an artwork to life at work. But in fact my model is already alive – she is living to begin with.

MS: So ‘casual classicism’ again?

MQ: And ‘reversing.’ These works are as much about freezing something as they are about bringing something to life. It’s almost like an inversion of that Pygmalion story. Life-casting is all about freezing a moment of real life in sculpture.

MS: And also strengthening? Given the sculptures are ‘all about love’, did making them strengthen your relationship with Jenny?

MQ: I think it’s an amazing thing to have done something in art, because art lasts longer than life does. You know, with the classical, we’re talking about sculptures from some two millennia ago, aren’t we? Maybe these statues – or some of them – will last 2000 years.

MS: I hope so!

MQ: And people will hopefully still be in love, hopefully the pieces will still speak to people.

MS:Let’s see if humanity lasts that long! I’m not optimistic… In any case, the question of ‘legacy’ leads us to the museum where Drawn from Life is installed.Footnote 18You decided to set these pieces in the houses where Sir John Soane (17531837) installed his collection. Like Soane, you’re a collector too, I think?

MQ: Yes. If you love art, if you love all art, it’s a natural thing to do – once you can afford to have art around you. I find it inspiring to have works by other artists around.

MS: And how would you characterize your collection?

MQ: It’s very, very diverse; I kind of buy what I like. Ancient. Modern. All the way, really.

MS: And if you could acquire any piece, from anywhere, what would it be?

MQ: I don’t know. What would you say?

MS:I’m not sure. Probably something lost. Maybe the alleged line-painting by Protogenes and Apelles, do you know the story? Pliny the Elder calls it an absolutum opus (an ‘absolute work’ of art), even though it ‘contains nothing on its vast surface’ except for three ‘almost invisible lines’each of supreme artistic mastery, in different colours, and each finer than the last.Footnote 19We’re told that it was destroyed in the first century ADbut I find it rich it in the context of ‘modern classicisms’and of ‘classical modernisms’….

MQ: That sounds really cool. I really don’t know what mine would be. It’s difficult because I like so many things, I can’t really think of one thing….

MS: Is there at least a favourite classical sculpture?

MQ: Well again, I like so many different ones. It’s very difficult to think of… Let me try and think of something that I really like… I love that life-size Hellenistic bronze boxer, the one in the recent Getty show… do you know the one I mean, from Rome?Footnote 20 But that’s really just off the top of my head.

MS:Interesting, I can see why that would appeal. Well, Soane was not just a collector. In 1833, he also acquired an act of Parliament to turn his own home into a museum, so that his collection could be preserved just as it was. The museum is crowded with furniture, antiquities, models sculptures, and paintingsarranged as they were when Soane died in 1837. How do you think the museum colours an interpretation of your statues, and how do your works affect a view of the museum?

MQ: I think they are both complementary to each other. The backdrop of the museum underlines the classical aspect of these sculptures: when you show them in a white space, they look more – well, they might be less obviously classical, less about the art of the past (cf. e.g., Figs. 10, 11). What I like about the museum is its collection of fragments – of every kind, from architectural pieces to fragments of figurative sculpture. Soane’s Museum is built from fragments. It’s like some kind of three-dimensional google-search of history, but one that exists in reality. It’s almost like being in someone’s brain: the museum is a memory, a memory box – the world’s cultural memory in a microcosm.

MS:And your pieces are the latest fragments to be addedtemporarilyto the collection?

MQ: A fragment is like a moment, isn’t it? And the museum is like a fragment from the past.

MS: Do you think that something’s more beautiful when it’s fragmented? Rodin is famously said to have declared that ‘une belle chose en ruine est plus belle qu’une belle chose’. Footnote 21

MQ: Well, I think there’s certainly an element of that. A fragmented thing is something that’s unknowable, and therefore ambiguous, something you can think about.

MS: So the fragment lends itself to contemplation?

MQ: It lends itself to dreaming, yes. You fill in the absences yourself.

MS:But in this case the dreams are also controlled. I’m thinking about the various juxtapositions in the museum‘Gold’ next to a bronze cast of the Medici Venus (with the same position of the hands [Fig. 13 ]), for example, ‘Nature’s’ next to another naked Venus, or ‘Hot’ in the Monk’s Parlour (its headless shape set against the fragmented sculpted heads that hand on the back wall [Fig. 1 ]). Were the juxtapositions intentional?

MQ: Yes, to some extent they were. But there could have been, what, twelve other completely different ones, and perhaps they would have been better. In any case, they’d be different. The relationship between ‘Gold’ and the Capitoline Venus was a very obvious juxtaposition to do. But I like ‘Heaven’ with the Belvedere Apollo – the two bums seen from the back (Fig. 14). And I like the two slightly ‘Egyptian’ statues in the front red room (Fig. 9), each in the window, with their arms crossed: it makes you think of the alabaster sarcophagus of King Seti downstairs (and those windows are almost like sarcophagi, aren’t they?).

MS:So the installation becomes part of the artworkin good modernist tradition!Footnote 22Likewise, the fragments become ‘interlocutors’ with one another, as the Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum has put it.Footnote 23

MQ: Each room is very different and brings with it a different quality: you have to keep on looking to see what emerges.

MS:That idea of ‘reflection’ comes to the fore to in the literal reflections toothe multiple views of statues, seen for example in the convex mirrors that Soane installed (e.g., Figs. 7 , 8 ). With that in mind, I wanted to ask about colour. Often, the use of stained glass changes the hue of these statues: with ‘Hot’set up in the Monk’s Parlour (Fig. 1 )a yellow light is channeled through the hollow ‘piping’ of the legs. Likewise, those two ‘Egyptian-’pose statues that you just mentioned radiate the glorious pink of the window blinds (Fig. 9 ). These variations in colour develop the polychromy of the statues themselves, with their greys, whiles, blues and blacks (sometimes combined in a single piece like ‘Life’ (Fig. 9 , 10 ). What is colour doing here?

MQ: When statues are cast in fibreglass they take on different shades. A pretty palette emerges – of blue, grey, brown, beige, white, sometimes a bit of black. That palette of fibreglass is the palette that I’ve used, but it’s also a bit like the palette of an egg shell.

MS: So not a response to the polychromy of ancient sculpture? Footnote 24

MQ: I don’t think it’s about that: the pieces are referring to ancient sculpture, but in a kind of non-polychrome, handed-down way, even when we know this wasn’t their historical appearance.

MS:When we think of the classical we tend to think of white, shining marble. Is there a challenge to that literal and metaphorical ‘whiteness’ hereeven a question of ‘race’ (given that Jenny, your ‘Muse’, is black). As a classicist, the works instantly make me think about so-called ‘Black Athena’ debates….Footnote 25

MQ: Well, that’s why there are lots of different colours. The colours aren’t based on skin colour, or on different skin colours. It’s an aesthetic that again appeals to the imagination.

MS: And what do you think Soane himself would have made of the installation?

MQ: I don’t know. I hope he would have liked it. He might have said, ‘I should have put more in there myself!’ Or he might have thought, ‘I didn’t realize how under-hung the museum is!’ – how much space there still was, that he could fit twelve more life-size statues in there.

MS:At this stage, let me zoom out a little. All About Love is just the latest in a series of continuing engagements with classical artistic traditionsstatues like Self (a series initiated in 1991 [Fig. 1 ]),Footnote 26 Emotional Detox (19931994), Complete Marbles (19992005 [e.g., Figs. 17 , 18 ]),Footnote 27 Alison Lapper Pregnant (2004 [Fig. 19 ]),Footnote 28 Siren (2008 [Figs. 4 , 5 ]),Footnote 29and Planet (2008).Footnote 30How do you think future critics might situate All About Love within your œuvre?

Fig. 17
figure 17

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, The Complete Marbles ‘James Gillespie’ (1999). Marble; 180 h × 51 d (cm).

Fig. 18
figure 18

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, The Complete Marbles ‘Peter Hull’ (1999). Marble; 84 h × 66 w × 38 d (cm).

Fig. 19
figure 19

Reproduced courtesy of Marc Quinn, © Marc Quinn studio

Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant (2004), as temporarily installed on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square in London. Marble; 355 h × 180.5 w × 260 d (cm).

MQ: I think, as you say, it’s a continuation. There are technical differences too. The works in All About Love use the same life-casting technique as Emotional Detox, for example. But at that time I didn’t yet have the silicone rubber, and so I used alginate for the cast instead – which is essentially powdered seaweed. All these pieces form part of a continuing investigation into the fragment – into ideas of wholeness, into different aspects of the classical.

MS: So, once again, part of a larger rethinking about what the classical is?

MQ: Yes. The sculptures of disabled people that I did – in Complete Marbles (cf. Figs. 17, 18), which ended up culminating in Alison Lapper (cf. Fig. 19) – those were statues about these ideas too.Footnote 31 You see someone in a museum looking at the ‘Venus de Milo’ or the ‘Elgin Marbles’, and they say ‘oh, this is one of the most beautiful sculptures of a human being ever made.’ But when you have a real person of that shape in the room, people would likely react in a very different way; they’re slightly uncomfortable, awkward even, unsure how to respond. It seemed really interesting to me that we accept something and celebrate it in art, but that we find it problematic in real life.

MS: At once a celebration and a subversion, then, of classical associations?

MQ: I thought: well, why don’t I find people who really do have body shapes like these sculptures and then make statues of them in marble and see what happens. So I made this basically neoclassical-style sculpture of Peter Hull, for instance – who was born without legs and with shortened arms (Fig. 17); or a marble bust – now in Mougins [Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins] – of Bill Walthier, who was blind from birth, in the style of an ancient Roman portrait. What you get is this strange result: traditionally, marble is the material of cultural celebration; but when you see a sculpture, a perfect sculpture, of someone with a disabled body it kind of makes you think they must come from a more enlightened culture in some way, a culture in which different kinds of beauty are celebrated. From taking an idea and medium from the past, I ended up with something that seemed very futuristic to me when I made them.

MS:As you say, you’re also dealing there with a different material: marble. These latest pieces are made in fiberglass. Your Siren statue of Kate Moss was made from around 50 kilos of 18-carat gold (Figs. 4 , 5 ), your series of Self portraits are made from ten frozen pints of your own blood (Fig. 3 ).

MQ: I think it’s always good to find a new material. And I just think for these pieces the fibreglass is – well, I am very happy with it.

MS: I want to end by returning us to the theme of ‘classicism’ with which we began. You have very kindly offered to participate in our ‘Modern Classicisms’ project, on contemporary artistic responses to ancient materials. How do you think contemporary artists help us to understand the art of the classical past?

MQ: That’s a big question. First, I think all art was contemporary once: that’s important to remember. But I’m not sure that you can give a blanket answer to a question like that. Maybe the contemporary can help us understand the classical – maybe some of it can, maybe some of it can’t. I think all art relates in different ways, and in different juxtapositions.

MS:What about All About Love – those juxtapositions in Sir John Soane’s Museum (Fig.  20 )?

Fig. 20
figure 20

Marc Quinn standing beside All About Love ‘Untrimmed’ (2016–2017) in Sir John Soane’s Museum, March 2017

MQ: Well, I think it is… I don’t know, to be honest – lots of different things, everything that we’ve talked about. You have to look.

MS:In which case, let me close by giving one final sound-bite and see what you make of it. Pablo Picasso declared that ‘The beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, nymphs, Narcissuses, they’re all so many lies; art is not the canon of beauty but what the instinct and brain can conceive beyond any canonwhen we love a woman, we don’t start measuring her limbs.’Footnote 32What do you think is meant by that?

MQ: The whole point of art is to present you with something new – it shows you things that are beautiful that you wouldn’t have anticipated, that you might not have thought possible. But then you don’t have to submit into a system. Art is trying to give people what they didn’t know they wanted. You don’t give what people what they want. You give them what they didn’t realise they desired.