Marc Quinn: a maverick goes wild in Kew Gardens

    Marc Quinn has had a strange career as an artist. He emerged in the 1990s, arriving in the slipstream of the YBAs. But he was always a bit different. Having gone to Cambridge, where he studied history, he stood out: cerebral, well read, a touch superior.

    His debut in our consciousness was startling: a self-portrait head made from nine pints of his own blood, which sat in a refrigeration unit looking spooky. As much a scientific wonder as a work of art, the haemoglobin head attested to an interest in biology and the mechanics of refrigeration that distinguished Quinn from the rest of his generation.

    In 2005 he gave us the best of all the fourth plinth commissions in Trafalgar Square: a gigantic white marble statue of Alison Lapper, the phocomelia heroine, whom he turned into London’s unmissable Venus de Milo. A genuine masterpiece. Since then, he has trodden his own path. No big shows at the Tate. No obvious establishment support. He’s been a maverick.

    So, “Where to place Marc Quinn?” remains a good question, one which I arrived at his sprawling take-over of Kew Gardens hoping to answer. In recent months the botanical gardens at Kew have pushed themselves on to the front line of contemporary art with some punchy displays. Quinn’s is the biggest of them and, also, the biggest survey of his career.

    Called Light into Life, the show has various parts. Scattered about the botanical gardens is a series of 14 polished steel sculptures, the largest as high as a London bus, modelled on important plants in the Kew collection. Working with Kew’s scientists, Quinn has focused on botanical specimens, like the opium poppy, which have played a significant part in drug research. It’s part of an exhibition-long ambition to understand and value the relationship between plants and humans.

    Unfortunately, the tribute is only intermittently successful. The sculptures are flat, in imitation of the archive of pressed flowers that Kew also holds. So their shapes can be read properly only from the front. From the side, they’re just a shiny edge. Enjoying their full impact — losing yourself in the perfectly polished steel reflections, watching them disappear intriguingly against their backgrounds — only happens if you are standing in the right place. As sometimes happens with Quinn’s work, the science is more telling than the artistry.

    Inside Kew’s magnificent Temperate House, the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse, where some of the rarest plants are kept, he hits two more bum notes with a giant pair of bronze recreations of bonsai trees. The two huge sculptures, towering over opposite ends of the Temperate House, are modelled on the bonsai created by the controversial Japanese master Masahiko Kimura, who pioneered a style of bonsai that was particularly sculptural and showy. By enlarging Kimura’s artificially dwarfed trees to normal tree height, thereby reversing the bonsai process, Quinn asks itchy questions about humanity’s treatment of nature: is it our ally or our plaything?

    The problem is, the bronze recreations are so big, so detailed, so weighty, so expensive looking, you spend your time in front of them wondering what kind of mighty carbon footprint was left behind by their manufacture. An unnatural amount of effort has gone into Quinn’s rumination on the natural.

    As you wander around Kew, encountering all this art is fun. The texts and captions that accompany every work keep up an informative commentary on the artist’s ambitions and the specific botany. The Kew scientists who helped Quinn in his planning provide an illuminating stream of facts. As a meeting between art and science, it’s a happy two-hander.

    Having sent us on a safari around the 320 acres of Kew, searching for art, the show heads indoors for its gallery-based chapter, where it manages to reach both its perigee and its apogee. To get the bad news out of the way first, let’s confront the perigee. Oh dear, oh dear.

    Another of the jewels in Kew’s botanical archive is the Shirley Sherwood collection of botanical illustrations. Started in 1990, the Sherwood collection has been gathering work by the best botanical artists in the world. Foolishly, Quinn has decided to measure himself against them by organising a display in which his work accompanies theirs.

    It’s a cruel pairing. In every case his contributions are shown up by the things hanging next to them. Botanical illustration is a demanding artistic task. To do it well you need fabulous eyesight and unusual amounts of skill, patience, precision and delicacy. The artists collected by Sherwood have those qualities. Quinn does not. He’s simply not a skilled or fluent enough draughtsman to thrust himself into this company.

    The Sherwood face-off is embarrassing. Fortunately, there is still plenty of the show to run, including its best moments. The central space of Kew’s exhibition galleries has been given over to a powerful mini-survey of Quinn’s signature works: his frozen heads and giant close-ups of cosmic cells. Suddenly, he’s assured, ambitious and impressive.

    A self-portrait, cast, this time, in coconut milk, is simultaneously spooky and ethereal. A set of frozen lilies, made of animal blood, is both hospital clean and madly gothic. The refrigerator housing the lilies is an exquisite piece of cryogenic technology. But the lilies themselves, fashioned crudely out of dark blood, yank us down the dark alley of a primordial past. One artwork, two moods.

    As always in Quinn’s finest moments, science and art are tussling.

    Marc Quinn: Light into Life, at Kew Gardens, until Sep 29