Where Life Begins, on
The Edge of the Sea
”Evolution” (2005) by Marc Quinn. © T. Ameller – Musée Océanographique de Monaco 2012
Versailles is doing it. The Louvre is doing it. Many of France’s once-hidebound traditional museums have taken to scattering works of contemporary art amid their august collections. Now the Musée Océanographique de Monaco has opened its doors to an iconoclastic contemporary artist, Marc Quinn, for an exhibition entitled “The Littoral Zone.”
Quinn is a perfect fit for the museum. His interest in science dovetails with the museum′s mission as defined by its founder, Prince Albert I of Monaco, when he opened it in 1910. The prince-explorer wanted to bring together science and art under the roof of the imposing Belle Epoque building hovering over the Mediterranean on the top of a cliff.
When Quinn first saw the museum, he was intrigued by its position on the cusp between earth and sea. It inspired the title of the show, which refers to that intermediary zone between land and sea where “solid becomes liquid,” a point of origin and transformation, themes that recur constantly in his conceptual works, whose ideas are expressed in a wide variety of traditional forms—sculpture, painting, photography, etc.—although they are often made using the latest technical processes.
Even before they enter the museum, visitors to the Monaco show are greeted on the terrace in front of it by the impressive sight of “Planet” (2008), a gigantic six-ton white-painted bronze sculpture of a newborn baby floating in the sky. In the entry hall is another example of Quinn′s interest in origins and penchant for gigantism: “The Origin of the World” (2012), an impossibly large exact copy of a Cassis madagascariensis shell in bronze, made using a rapid prototyping machine. This beautiful object might fool some visitors into thinking it is real shell, though what is interesting about both it and the gigantic baby is how real yet totally unreal they are.
One of the most effective pieces in the show is “Evolution,” an installation of nine monumental statues representing different stages in the growth of an embryo and fetus, whose forms emerge from their blocks of pink marble in much the same way as Michelangelo′s “Slaves” emerge from the stone they were carved from. Standing in a circle in the Oceanographic Museum′s Salon d′Honneur, these pieces have a disturbing effect, forcing us to think about our animality.
Also highly effective (and disturbing) are his bronze skeleton sculptures, which once again seem real yet unreal. They are displayed in the dimly lit Salle de la Baleine, with is dominated by a skeleton of a rorqual whale and filled with the skeletons of numerous other animals. “Matter into Light: the Discovery of Fire” (2011) is an installation showing two human skeletons surrounded by eternal fire having sex, while “Rainbow Angel” is a human skeleton with short legs kneeling and praying. These are just two of the many high-impact works on show in this room.
Quinn, once qualified as a YBA (Young British Artist), is perhaps best known for his statue of a naked pregnant woman with no arms, “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” which was displayed on the fourth plinth in London′s Trafalgar Square from 2005 to 2007. Another of his attention-getting pieces, “Self,” is a sculpted, refrigerated self-portrait that he remakes every five years and fills with his own blood (drawn incrementally over a period of time). The latest version, dating from 2011, is on show here in conjunction with another refrigerated piece he created for this exhibition from a piece of ice he found in the museum that had been brought back from the North Pole by Prince Albert II, Monaco′s current monarch. After it had been exhibited in a show about the ice cap, the museum didn′t quite know what to do with it until Quinn came along. He was interested in the paradox involved in wasting electricity on freezing it when it was supposed to be part of a lesson on saving the environment and gave it a title that encapsulates another paradox involving humans and the natural world: “In the Amazon the Women of a Tribe which Hunts Monkeys for Food Breast Feed the Resultant Monkey Orphans.”
The desired side effect of these shows of contemporary art in traditional museums is to get visitors to pay attention to the museum′s permanent collection, which Quinn′s show does successfully (the museum also has a large aquarium, by the way, on its lower floors).
Musée Océanographique de Monaco: Avenue Saint-Martin, 98000 Monaco. Tel.: (377) 93 15 36 00. Open daily 9:30am-7pm in April, May, June; 9:30am-7:30pm in July, August. 9:30am-7pm in September; 10am-6pm in October, November, December. Admission: €14. Through October 15. www.oceano.org
Reader reaction: Click here to respond to this article (your response may be published on this page and is subject to editing).
© 2012 Paris Update