1+1+3 2002. Mixed media with white light, water, and pump system, 10x25x40 meters. View of installation at Camell Laird Shipyard, 2002 Liverpool Biennial

All Nature Flows Through Us: A Conversation with Marc Quinn

Marc Quinn’s All nature flows through us (2011) is an innovative, 10-meter-diameter sculpture sited in a small river north of Oslo, Norway, at the sculpture park of the Kistefos-Museet. It was no easy feat to install. The river had to be temporarily diverted, and the sculpture assembled on site. It depicts a human eye, with a bronze iris, water flowing through the open pupil and down the river. The imagery demonstrates humanity’s reliance on the planet in an evocative way, as all nature flows through us.

CAD illustration of iris for All nature flows through us.

Robert Preece: In 2003, I took a trip through north Norway and the Oslo area, where I found the landscape to be very impressive. Were you also taken by the Norwegian landscape?

Marc Quinn: Yes, it is epic and beautiful. Where All nature flows through us is sited, there’s a river valley with randomly carved brown rock. It’s obviously carved by nature, but it looks like there’s a kind of pattern, which reflects on the pattern of the iris in the sculpture. So, the sculpture fits almost exactly on that site.

RP: How did the commission for All nature flows through us come about? How was the site selected?

MQ: Christen Sveaas, the owner of the Kistefos Museum Foundation, was a collector of mine. Every year, they commission one work for the sculpture park. They asked me to come up, look around, and find an interesting site. I went and walked around, and my idea became fully formed as I was there. I wanted to work with the landscape as it was, with minimal intervention. The site selection was initially me saying, “I’d really like to do something in the river.” Then I had to look at which parts in the river could work, where people could see it and where it would have enough space around it. I also wanted the work to relate to the small hydroelectric dam nearby, which powers the water through the eye. So, there’s a connection there as well—the human intervention in nature is actually powering the sculpture.

RP: How did you develop the idea for the work?

Sections trial-fitted to ensure correct alignment and then painted.

MQ: I had been making eye paintings since 2009. I guess that it came from that, because I started developing the sculpture that year, working with 3D scanning. I began with a photograph of Christen Sveaas’s eye, representative of a human eye. I then made a 3D CAD file of the patterning and relief for the sculpture, which was carved with a router, first on a small scale and then on a very large scale for the sculpture. The eye is very much about the frontier between the figurative and the abstract: the idea that something that appears to be abstract, in fact, has a key to someone’s identity in it. The iris, doesn’t change, you can use it for identification. This relates to my works dealing with DNA. This eye is also about our relation to nature, that humans are not separate from the planet. In a way, the sculpture is like a natural clock. Water flows through it, and that shows that humans are still around: if they’re not, the hydroelectric dam won’t work anymore, and the water won’t flow. So, it’s like a barometer of nature and the planet and a kind of monument to co-existence. It’s about time, and the relationship of time to landscapes; I’ve always been interested in time—for instance, in the frozen sculptures—or in stopping time and living forever.

RP: Are you also referring to ancient Chinese disks?

MQ: Yes. I’m very interested in them. As you know, they symbolize the universe. I saw them when I was in the Far East, and I made a jade version for a show in Hong Kong 18 months ago. The work also relates to The artist’s eye, a smaller work that I exhibited at Gloucester Cathedral in 2010. That eye moves around, and you could view the landscape through the pupil.

RP: What do we see in the process and construction images?

MQ: First, you’ll see the pattern on the iris, taken from the photograph of the eye, applied to a parabola of the human eye. It was then rounded. Interestingly, the patterning on the iris is like a map of the world, like reshaped continents. There’s something quite terrestrial about it. Then you see the guys cleaning up the routing. They are sharpening edges, making sure that it’s all in good condition. They’re working with polystyrene, which is very hard. After it was done, the pieces were molded and cast in bronze with high-precision sand-casting. Then you have the bronze cast, which is up to 10 millimeters thick. Behind it is a stainless steel structure. The bronze pieces were bolted onto the structure and welded on site. Because of the size, the work couldn’t be finished at the foundry in England. Sections of the eye were transported by truck to Norway. The guys at the foundry worked on site for a few weeks, basically doing what they’d normally do at the foundry, welding the pieces together and finishing the weld. We put it together at the foundry first to make sure it all worked, and then we took it apart and put it together again on site.

RP: How much were you involved in the process at the foundry?

CAD illustration of iris for All nature flows through us.

MQ: I’m involved at every stage. I’m not personally pouring metal, but I’m involved in checking it. There were millions of phone calls and decisions; things like, “Do you want to sharpen this up or leave it like it is?” I’d go to see it regularly. It’s quite a slow process to cast so much metal. The whole thing took about 12 months. We worked with engineers on the internal structure, which has to withstand the spring melt. There can be very high water, which can go directly through the pupil. The structure has to be extremely strong because the water is bashing against the backside of the eye.

RP: The other side of the sculpture is flat.

MQ: Yes. It’s like a Chinese disk, featureless. You have the abstract and the figurative in one piece, the figurative on the front and the abstract on the back.

RP: What challenges were there for installation and maintenance?

MQ: The challenges were extreme. I think it’s an extraordinary thing to work with a collector who really has a big vision, if you’ll pardon the pun. Because we were committed to draining the river, to diverting it via a second tributary, in order to construct the concrete foundation, it was an immense job. We had to get permission from the hydroelectric company as well, and pumps took out residual water the entire time. During the installation, the riverbed was completely dry. The maintenance issues seem manageable. We haven’t had any problems, touch wood. You’d imagine that where the water comes through there would be discoloration, but that hasn’t happened.

RP: What about the water flow and the pressure?

MQ: Behind the eye, there’s a vertical concrete element covered in water to which the eye is bolted. The triangular shape helps the water to flow around it. It was interesting to work with water as a medium. The fact that it is liquid is interesting, because so many of the materials that I use seem solid, but actually are liquid or are only solid under certain circumstances. What becomes a bronze object is really a liquid solidified. And the frozen head and other frozen sculptures are water that’s been solidified. Then there’s 1+1=3, the rainbow sculpture. I had to learn how rainbows are created in nature and how to replicate that. 

Robert Preece is a Sculpture Contributing Editor based in Rotterdam.