Art Critic and Writer Anna Zizlsperger in conversation with Turkish art theoretician and curator Selen Ansen about "The Sleep of Reason," the current Marc Quinn exhibition at ARTER.
To read the full interview you can download the digital version of exhibist magazine issue 2 here.
Your academic background is in Cinema and Visual Arts and Modern Literature, as well as in Theory and Practice of the Arts. Is it right to say that up until recently you were mostly working as a lecturer/professor, art theorist and writer?
Yes, I have been working as a professor in Aesthetics and Theory of Art and also as an independent writer for a few years—I currently teach at Istanbul Bilgi University in the Masters Programme of Philosophy and Social Thought.
What made you decide to become a curator, and how do you think your academic background influences your work?
I did not, so to speak, decide to become a curator although I’ve been curious about the process of making exhibitions since I started collaborating with artists (as a writer). I had participated in the organisation of a few artistic events in France, but I didn’t make the „jump“ into curating until my experience at ARTER. I owe this to Emre Baykal and to Melih Fereli, who invited me to Berlinde de Bruyckere’s show in 2012 to work with ARTER’s team as a guest curator.
My academic background probably has an unavoidable influence on my approach; it’s difficult for me to estimate in which way exactly or to what extent, but I suppose my theoretical ground and subjects of interest play a role in the way I conceive a thread or build a relationship with the artworks. Yet, I also enjoy and feel the need to be „disoriented“ by subjects and practices that I’m not familiar with on a theoretical level.
You have been writing on Francesco Albano, Berlinde de Bruyckere and Marc Quinn recently. Is there an element which connects these artists, and why did you choose to work on them in particular?
In addition to the variety of mediums and materials these artists are using, they all have their own personal approach, their own „aesthetics“ in terms of the perception their works are shaping, their own view(s) on the world that affects them and which they are affecting in return. Along with these differences that distinguish their approaches, I think the most explicit element that connects their art is their common interest for the body, which instead of being solely „represented“ or valorized in one particular dimension, is unfolding the plurality of its realms. Berlinde de Bruyckere, Marc Quinn and Francesco Albano are each disturbing the anthropocentric gaze, restoring the repressed side of life and linking our being with what we would prefer to call the „inhuman“ or „non-human“. The body becomes the site of a collective and individual memory, the trace of past and present desires and wounds, the means for our self-construction and perception of the world. What also connects their respective approaches is, according to me, the way they relate to or interpret an artistic tradition. The „contemporary“ feature of their art is not restricted to the actuality of the themes they deal with or the mediums they use—It is also built into a dialogue with what we usually consider as past and distant.
I believe my collaborations with Berlinde de Bruyckere, Francesco Albano and Marc Quinn are the first encounters that have evolved around what I would call „shared affinities“. The presence of the body certainly has importance since one of my own main subjects of research revolves around the formation of corporeality, physicality and the symbolism of flesh throughout the history of art and history of thought.
The exhibition “The Sleep of Reason” at Arter brings together more than 30 works Marc Quinn has produced since the year 2000. Was it a deliberate decision to not show his earlier works?
It was not a deliberate decision—meaning taken from the start as some kind of statement—but rather the result of the selection of works I was talking about, which Marc Quinn and I made in relation to the thread(s) of the show.
The Sleep of Reason“ is not conceived as a retrospective, nor does it intend to tell the audience a „story“ from one, single perspective. Rather, it intends to unfold some of the major themes Marc Quinn is exploring (our relationship to nature, body and identity, evolution, history and geography) and to allow a plurality of echoing perspectives. Since Marc Quinn’s works are being shown for the first time in Istanbul, or anywhere in Turkey, it was important for us to present a wide range of his paintings and sculptures to the audience, including some of his seminal ones (such as Self, Zombie Boy or The Complete Marble series). Marc was also willing to show his latest works, including those which connect more specifically with the themes of History and Geography. I’m very glad we have the opportunity to include these works, most of them being exhibited for the first time; they enrich and extend the perspective of the show towards new horizons by linking it with very actual issues.
Which work is your personal highlight of the show?
It’s difficult for me to make a choice, but I would say first of all the Flesh Painting series, which impressed me a lot (visually and conceptually) when I first saw them in Marc’s studio and which are now deploying their uncanny and fascinating presence in dialogue with the other works. To me, besides the impressive physicality of their subject, the Flesh Painting series concretize some of Marc’s major concerns, such as the passage from figuration to abstraction or from materiality to immateriality in order to create an in-between zone where certainties fade away. This can also be sensed in the underwater paintings (Before and After Humans) that are present in the show as well.
Marc Quinn, Flesh Painting (On a Homeopathic Diet), 2013, oil on canvas, 279 x 419 cm. Photo: Todd-White Art Photography
Were you approached by Arter to curate the show or did you propose it to them?
I was approached by Arter and, more specifically, invited by Emre Baykal. Before we started the project, it was also important for me that Marc agreed to our collaboration.
The exhibition’s title is inspired by Goya’s etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”. You left out the second part of the work’s title — Why is that, and can you give us a short explanation of why you chose that title?
„The Sleep of Reason“ is a title suggested by Marc Quinn; I liked it immediately for its suggestive force and also for the way it pursues, indirectly, Marc’s interpretation of art history. In my point of view, independent from the reference to Goya’s etching, the title reflects and accurately expresses the thread of the show revolving around the notion of threshold. Indeed, in Goya’s etching and title there is already an ambiguity or a transition between a state of consciousness and unconsciousness, between reality and fantasy.
Goya’s etching is part of a series entitled Los Caprichos that he made in reaction to the society of his time, which he considered to be unequal and „morally depraved“. The „monsters“ he has depicted contribute in creating the allegorical features and political aspect of his etchings.
With this title, Marc is both indirectly referring to Goya’s original etching and departing from it, especially from its moral content, specific historical context and darkness. Yet, his approach shares several aspects with Goya’s: the wish not to faithfully imitate nature but to remain faithful to its dynamic; showing the reversibility of things; and a concern for History. Marc Quinn’s paintings and sculptures are „contemporary“ in the way that they make use of the production means of their time and in the way that they refer to our „images,“ presenting and materializing a History in movement that also points to the globalized world we now live in. The „monsters“ and „chimeras“ Goya imagined in order to reveal and criticize the decline of values have now lost their „monstrosity“ in terms of the fear and „counter-nature“ aspect that the figure of the monster was traditionally linked with and the extraordinary nature it was believed to embody. Thus, the beings, things, events and phenomena re-presented by Marc Quinn are still spectacular but no longer „monstrous“; they are inspired by life itself, surpassing it without ever leaving it.
How did you go about choosing the works and connecting them together in the show?
Marc Quinn and I selected the works together; it was a long-term process held in regard to the thread of the show, which also took into consideration the spatial characteristics of Arter’s exhibition venue.
What kind of development can you note in his works, comparing those from the 90s to more current pieces?
This diversity that characterises Marc’s art goes hand in hand with a certain continuity in the themes he explores or, for example, in the way he has been connecting art and science since his first works from the 90’s. This continuity can also be seen in the way he stages and questions the increasing role of technology today—not only in the production/reception of an artwork, but also in the way we shape ourselves and mediatise the world. In relation to this, we may say from a formal perspective that the spectacular aspect of Marc Quinn’s works has become stronger with the complex technical processes they result from, the formal and perceptive possibilities these technical means are creating and fullfilling.
From a more thematical perspective, instead of making shifts, I think his approach is more about expanding scales and playing with limits. Marc’s latest paintings, drawings and sculptures express his growing interest in human evolution as part of the evolution of the universe and in showing, on a closer scale, his concern for the contemporary world’s changes on a political, cultural and social level.
In May 2013 Quinn had an extensive solo exhibition at the Cini Foundation in Venice, curated by Germano Celant. Did you take that show into consideration beforehand, and how do you feel your concept of showing Marc Quinn at Arter is different to Celant’s approach?
We started preparing Marc’s show at ARTER when the one curated by Germano Celant in Venice was being finalised. I am very glad I could visit it twice and discover the connections Germano Celant and Marc had highlighted. I found the exhibition impressive, especially in the way it built a dialogue between works from different periods, and the way it created an almost „organic“ relationship between the inner and outer spaces of the Cini Foundation.
To me, the first difference between the two shows is, apart from the curatorial statements and choices, linked to the site and architectural specificity of each venue. The Cini Foundation provides a horizontal space, which also allows for artworks, especially monumental ones, to be shown outdoors; its insularity and contact with the water element also has great importance since water bears meaning in Marc’s works. In contrast, ARTER’s venue offers a vertical space consisting of four floors and is located on one of the main, most crowded and „strategic“ streets of the city. This urban feature of ARTER’s exhibition venue has had an indirect role in the way we conceived the show as an interaction, a communion and a tension between the inside and the outside.
Besides Marc’s latest paintings and sculptures that will be shown for the first time at ARTER, the two exhibitions share some of his older works in common, although they display them in a very different arrangement; it always amazes me to see to what extent an artwork unfolds a new dimension within each new dialogue it engages in.
In your curatorial proposal you state that “Goya takes liberties with the real and the plausible in order to hold out a frightening mirror to his contemporaries”. Would you say Quinn has a similar approach with his works?
I would take out the word „frightening“! It is certainly true that Marc also „takes liberties with the real,“ but he does so in order to, as I was saying before, faithfully present its dynamic, force of transformation and renewal. The mirror element is interesting, since a mirror is supposed to be reflective but can be distorting at the same time; according to me, the models Marc chooses and works with operate as some kind of mirrors when they become artworks. Yet, instead of reflecting an image of the same, they reveal the sameness that is hidden in the core of the different.
Why do you think it’s so important to draw attention to the theme of the “threshold” and „transition“, as stated in your curatorial concept, as well as the categories that shape our understanding of the world?
I suggested the theme of the „threshold“ with regard to the processes and displacements the works are actualizing. It seems to me that we can sense the materialisation of multiple thresholds and transitions in the way Marc Quinn gathers the poles of life, engages the transformation of materials, or blurs the distinction between art and life, nature and culture. The notion of „threshold“ adds a fundamental nuance to the notion of „limit“ that we are accustomed to experiencing and conceiving as a constraint or an impediment. A threshold remains abstract unless it is concretized by what it separates and unites at the same time. It is never given nor static, rather ongoingly created and moving. I think the perceptive experience Marc’s works are inviting us to join also points to the fact that although we are living in a globalised world where things and spaces are connected (and more easily reachable) and identities are easily changeable, we remain nevertheless dependent on historical categories of thought that tend to establish strict borders and boundaries. This can be extended to the way „civilised“ societies produce and exclude the „different“ from what is established and valorised as „normal“ and acceptable.
How do you feel this exhibition relates to Istanbul?
Marc Quinn’s works draws attention to the particular by linking it to the universal, or rather by revealing the universal dimension of a particular (being or event). In that sense, his art transcends geographical borders and contextual, country or site-specific dynamics. But this very universality that his art is achieving also allows our individual and particular experiences to be echoed, revived and to „find home“ on a stage.
As an example, his new series of work The Creation of History —which was first inspired by the riots in London—reproduce on tapestries images of protest or destruction from all around the world. The installation can be seen as a new mapping of the world that takes form as established (geographical) borders dissolve. Although Istanbul is not directly „represented“, these images will certainly very much echo—both for a local as well as for an international audience visiting the show—the Gezi protest movement which occured last summer and whose images have been paradoxically „silenced“ by the local media but were internationally broadcasted. Thus, what can be seen as an absence turns into a powerful presence that conveys the experience of individuals and allows it free reign. This mapping is that of a common, collective memory in action, which is ongoingly built and lived in the present, and which forms a common ground for History.
Left: Selen Ansen, Curator of Marc Quinn - The Sleep of Reason at Arter
Right: Marc Quinn, The Creation of History, 2012, jacquard tapestry, 250 x 160 cm. Photo: Marc Quinn Studio
Are you planning to work on more curatorial projects in the future and if so, which would be of interest?
Yes, I’m starting to work for the show of a Turkish contemporary artist, but it’s too soon for me to talk about it more precisely. On the other hand, I’m also more and more interested into sound and silence related artworks (not only musical) and the sensory or perceptive experiences they create. Most of all, I believe projects are nourished or inspired by life experiences, by encounters with artworks, or by an artist’s „world“; therefore I am willing to be as open as possible to these.
The Sleep of Reason is on view at ARTER until 27 April 2014.
Left: Marc Quinn, Map of Where You Can't See the Stars, Atlantic, August 25 2013, oil on canvas, diameter: 200 cm. Photo: Jack Hems
Right: Marc Quinn, Stuart Penn, 2000, marble, 166 x 99 x 54 cm. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy of Marc Quinn Studio