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The Greatest Self-Portrait of All Time…so far

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Back in 1991, fine artist Marc Quinn, (one of what’s now known as the Young British Artists) started the greatest self-portrait project of all time.

Self (1991) © Marc Quinn

Self (blood head) is a self portrait that has been cast and frozen, made out of 4.5 litres of Quinn’s own blood, reportedly extracted over a period of about 5 months. And every 5 years, he’s updated the the project with a new version.

Over at Marc Quinn’s official website, you can view each blood portrait in exquisite detail by zooming in on the heads.

detail of Self (1991) © Marc Quinn. For higher resolution, make sure to view on Quinn's actual site.

I say this is the greatest self-portrait of all time, not just for the technical mastery and the visceral material they’re made in: but because without a ‘life-support’ system to frame the frozen blood and keep it frozen, these portraits will one day decay.  All portraits will decay eventually, whether by weathered erosion of marble or mouldy canvas or tarnished bronze.  By crafting these heads out of his own blood, Quinn reconnects us to the the fact that in the fullness of time, no artist’s attempt at immortality through self-portraiture will prevail. And of course the series will presumably end in the course of the artist’s life, so the artwork’s time-dimension has a death of sorts as well.

Self (2006) © Marc Quinn

The Self project is a kind of visual onomatopoeia: a self-portrait, made out of the artist himself, through time. But is it the greatest, most appropriately-done self-portrait that ever will be made?

I don’t think so. As the sub-field of science-art known as bioart gains traction, I think we could one day see a self-portrait even closer to an individual artist: giant masses of cultured, extracted DNA perhaps; moulded and animated,  a moving person in a tank. A sort of mash-up from Quinn’s DNA portrait of geneticist Sir John Sulston and the infamous shark-in-formaldehyde by fellow Young British Artist Damien Hirst. Or perhaps a great-grandchild of a Second Life avatar will appear as the truest, most apt self-portrait of all time.

Or perhaps, wonderfully, something unknown, some technique and vision over our horizon that will shock and attract as beautifully as Self continues to do.

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. laidman 10:52 am 05/20/2012

    “…without a ‘life-support’ system…these portraits will one day decay.”

    and not a moment too soon…

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  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 12:56 pm 05/20/2012

    Best art is disconcerting, challenging. Art is not supposed to be “pretty” but thought-provoking, forcing us to explore our previously unexamined norms and ideas.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 7:48 pm 05/20/2012

    Bora Zivkovic – Who cares what art is ‘supposed to be’? Would you want it in your living room?

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  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 11:43 pm 05/20/2012

    Since when is art something that is decided according to the criterion of wanting it in one’s living room?

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 2:20 am 05/21/2012

    - As long as there has been art and living rooms!

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  6. 6. Glendon Mellow 7:04 am 05/21/2012

    Laidman, jtdwyer, I gotta agree with Bora on this one.

    Being put off by Self because of “ickiness” is like being put off by Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus because you get sea sick.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 7:19 am 05/21/2012

    Glendon Mellow – Sorry, but I don’t see any comparison. The Birth of Venus is extraordinarily beautiful creation… These blood castings are a bloody mess! How about sculpted placenta – that could be really interesting for the true art aficionados…

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  8. 8. Tommy L 7:34 am 05/21/2012

    jtdwyer – so your if I’m reading this right, basically your definition of art is something that *you* want in your living room. Right. Though I’m pretty sure art was around prior to the existence of living rooms. But hey, each to their own, though I’m glad you’re not the director of an art gallery (or are you…?).

    A sculpted placenta is an interesting idea, perhaps in the shape of the person which was attached to it prior to birth? Or a hybrid of both that person and their mother? After all, half of it was formed from the same cells which gave rise to the fetus, while the other half develop from the maternal uterine tissue.

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  9. 9. Glendon Mellow 7:34 am 05/21/2012

    Much of the fine art tradition of the last 100 years has dealt with painting referencing itself: Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters are, quite simply, paintings about paint. The method becomes part of the subject. This sometimes leads to intensely obscure navel-gazing in fine art, where the meaning and appreciation becomes almost lost to outsiders.

    Quinn’s Self doesn’t suffer from that. The blood it is made from may shock or repulse, but it’s an undeniably powerful medium to use for sculpting a self-portrait. Akin to creating a landscape scene out of earth and wood or a statue of Venus out of stone from the planet Venus.

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  10. 10. Bora Zivkovic 9:17 am 05/21/2012

    Cave art. Graffiti. Large statues. Large art pieces that fill an entire city square or park. Some art is just not fit – for size if nothing else – for one’s home. It should be in a gallery. Or outdoors. But it should make us think, not just feel good about ourselves.

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  11. 11. jamarton 9:35 am 05/21/2012

    Bora Zivkovic wrote:
    “Best art is disconcerting, challenging. Art is not supposed to be “pretty” but thought-provoking, forcing us to explore our previously unexamined norms and ideas.”

    The most profound art is deeply affecting regardless of the quality of emotions or thoughts they evoke. This can include pretty pieces. A skilled artist can make you feel something that they are trying to express. A great artist can do that on many ambiguous levels within the same artwork. This spans all of the arts not just visual. Some people don’t respond to what an artist has to express because they have different life experiences. For example, I respond very differently to contemporary U.S. patriotic art than many of those who enjoy that sort of thing.

    I’ve been in the visual art field for so many years that disconcerting, challenging works of art are, frankly, a trite bore. Every once in a while one will surprise me. Although this piece is mildly disconcerting, I like it. I wouldn’t want it in my living room, but I would enjoy visiting it on display. (main argument for public museums and art programs) Also, it would be *awesome* to see a time lapse of it melting. There could be a kind of beauty in that…

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