by Marc Quinn, sample of sitter’s DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel, 2001
In this article I intend to scrutinise the use of metaphor in the art piece “A Genomic Portrait: Sir John Sulston” by Marc Quinn, and assess whether regarding it as a portrait is consistent or even relevant in today’s art culture. Coming from a portrait artist’s background, I find it interesting to delve into the interpretations of portraiture in modern art and how these conceptualisms are metaphors for the human form itself, constantly chanmging oour perception on what we regard as portraiture.
In Quinn’s Exhibit, he has extracted DNA from leading geneticist Sir John Sulston, and using the growth of bacteria onto agar jelly it creates a unique arrangement onto the gelatine. Although the finished product in a literal sense is abstract, the piece could be considered more realistic that any other paintings exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. This is down to the work actually being part of the ‘sitter’, and through this donation, not only do we get an outline of the processes that led to the creation of Sir John Sulston, but it can also be said that this is a representation of parents, grandparents and other ancestors in his immediate bloodline.
This solidarity of the layout of the bacteria and its uniqueness is what puts itself forward as a portrait, in the same way DNA sequencing would give a unique personal coding, and using this coding you can get a true representation of the person. On the other hand, this just makes the DNA sequence a number, and loses any true physical resonance of the person. In addition to this, the representation obtained using coding will never truly be accurate to the subject duie to environmental changes, such as scarrification.
However, this is not the first time an artist has ‘given themselves’ to a piece of work in order to add conceptualism to the piece. Italian Artist Pierro Manzoni exhibited cans of his own faeces entitled “Artist’s Shit”, which questioned the commercialism in modern art at the time, which questioned the commercialism in modern art at the time, asking whether it is the art itself or the name attributed to it which makes the work successful. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp have also produced work, using their own urine/semen to create paintings. Therefore it raises the question – are these works of art any less relevant in representing the subject than Quinn’s? Although it can be argued that the processes taking place on the Agar are unique to any other replication, and this concept of personal identification is what seperated it from the work mentioned.
In conclusion, I believe that it is the physical presence of the subject in Quinn’s work, and most importantly the arrangement of the bacteria onto the work that makes the piece successful in terms of portraiture. It is that unique formation on gelatine which has been shaped individually by the DNA sample, and unlike any others. In the same way a person’s mobile phone has been manipulated to fit its owners identity and preferences, or a clay pot that is hand moulded leaves imprints of the sculptor, it is this physical presence that makes it a true portrait, and not the unique coding or merely an artist giving their own flesh and blood to the work that makes it successful