Thursday, April 27, 2006

Painting Number Six

Time once again for another entry in my drawn-out list of my ten favorite paintings. Strictly speaking, this one isn't a painting but it certainly is a portrait. Just not a conventional one:

Sir John Sulston: A Genomic Portrait
Marc Quinn, 2001

At first glance this is a terribly ugly piece of conceptual art. If it strikes you as looking like a culture on a petri dish, that's because it pretty much is. The portrait consists of bacterial cultures grown in agar jelly on a sperm sample from Sir John Sulston. Sulston is the former director of the Sanger Centre at Cambridge University, where work instrumental in decoding the human genome was carried out.

Speaking in 2001 at the portrait's unveiling at London's National Portrait Gallery, Quinn noted: "Even though in artistic terms it seems to be abstract, in fact it is the most realistic portrait in the Portrait Gallery. It carries the actual instructions that led to the creation of John. It is a portrait of his parents, and every ancestor he ever had back to the beginning of life in the Universe."

It's not everyday I get to agree with a man who once made a cast of his head out of six pints of his own frozen blood, but Quinn is spot on here. To put the above in my own words, what makes this piece so attractive to me is that while this is apparently one of the most abstract portraits ever created, no more an unchanging image of a sitter could have been made. Conventional portraits capture a moment in time, and even the best of them carry an air of forced artificiality. Sitters age even as their image is being painted, photographed or sculpted and there is nothing natural about posing. Even a candid portrait falls foul of the theory of superposition (the famous Schrödinger's cat illustration of "the observer's paradox") which states that in the very act of being observed, the observed object is in some way altered. What Quinn has given us is a portrait of the very nature of Sulston; the code that carries all that made and directed the growth and actions his ancestors, his present, his future, and his heirs.

For our scientific age, it really is a version of this:

For those who argue that there can be no transcendent spirituality without acknowledging a god or etheral other, I humbly offer Sir John Sulston: A Genomic Portrait as evidence of the miraculous nature of biochemistry. As a wellspring of life, it is just so infinitely more breathtaking than any capricious creation of bronze age superstition seated atop a cloud could ever be.

(Others in the painting series: #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5)

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