The resonance of be-square op-art with the modernist grain of postmodernism didn’t shock Marc Quinn. The late conceptual sculptor made the argument himself: “It’s the postmodern cultural thing, don’t get me wrong, but I think what’s quite exciting is the idea of a human being being a work of art. This idea is pushed very far and very fast – I think, actually, that it came about because that was the way that postmodernism was over in terms of ‘objectivism’ itself. Even though I think it’s an absurd way of viewing things, if you think of it in terms of human beings then maybe it’s OK.”
For those who still subscribe to the postmodern strain of the art canon, then, this new book might seem worthy of examination: an essential inventory of pieces by and about the man who put the photograph within the photograph, who was the first to literally put Louise Nevelson’s gallery beneath his feet, and who left us a video installation that reminded us of Jeffrey Archer’s long-term mistress. (Quinn says he was her lover.) But it is not. Quinn did not, in fact, develop the postmodern idea about art. He – is it, his? – made it. Hadn’t he?
It is, I guess, inevitable that his standing, which might never have existed if art – any art – hadn’t done the reporting of culture over the last 50 years, will never fully be questioned. But if it has not attracted close scrutiny before, from other artists who came of age later, here it is with real intelligence and affection.
I found myself drawn to many of the works. The best thing about this book is Quinn’s description of his process of telling himself and others “yes, no, maybe” as he moves from art to art. It becomes obvious that the whole of Quinn’s work is about staging and playing with our social relations – and that what he tries to do is, just as Jean-Michel Basquiat offered a new method for putting up graffiti, or Damien Hirst offered an apotheosis of the photography-photo-photography technique, the object is its identity.
“An Artist’s Life in Objects” does not serve art, but does offer an intimate portrait of an artist who is worth knowing more about. And, no, I don’t really think it was the postmodernists who did this. I think it was Marc Quinn.