How We Met: Sir John Sulston & Marc Quinn

Article excerpt

The artist Marc Quinn (right), 37, came to prominence in 1991 with `Self', a frozen sculpture of his head cast in his own blood. He has had many solo shows and his work was shown as part of Sensation at the Royal Academy. He lives in London with his partner and their son. His latest work is a `genomic portrait' of Sir John Sulston for the National Portrait Gallery.

The scientist Sir John Sulston, 59, was born in Buckinghamshire. A world leader in genetics, he led the team that sequenced the first animal genome and is the founding director of the Sanger Centre, which campaigns to make human genome data publicly available. Married with two children, he lives in Cambridgeshire

Marc Quinn I knew about the Human Genome Project, but I didn't know who was involved in it, until this commission to do John's portrait.

John and I were put together by the Wellcome Trust in a restaurant in London. There were a whole load of people from the Trust and the National Portrait Gallery, and us in the middle. We chatted, then I went up to Cambridge for the day, John came down to my studio, and it went from there.

I never thought five years ago I'd be doing something for the NPG. It's the first so-called abstract image in the NPG, but it's their most realistic and specific portrait in many ways and showed great forward thinking on their part. It pushed them away from the idea that a portrait has to be a painting of a face. I like using real materials so it had to be real genes. My initial idea was to put some of John's genes into a growing plant, which John told me is possible but illegal!

For me, it was important to use an actual scientific process from John's work to make the portrait. The work uses a random segment of John's DNA. We could have used any of a million different ones. It's a viewpoint, like when you draw someone you can draw their hand, their face, or their profile. When you look at someone, from their appearance, you feel like you're reading what they're like inside. Here it's the opposite: you've got the inside and it doesn't really tell you anything about him.

There are enough genes here to define John individually, but it's also a portrait of every one of his ancestors. It goes back to that point of ancestry we share with everything alive on earth. John gets distressed about the widening gap between rich and poor. It's important for us to be reminded that this portrait of him has all of humanity in there as well.

Meeting John has inspired me. We've done a couple of works together, and we've plans to do more. It's nice to work with someone in a different field, we share ideas and stuff. Most non-scientists think you can't play in a lab, but that's the whole essence of it.

There's the sense when you're an artist, of thinking, "I've spent all this time doing all this stuff and it's irrelevant to the world." But John is brilliant. He's doing something so tangibly, obviously, fantastically good for the evolution of the species, for our awareness, and for helping other people. I admire that side of him.

Sir John Sulston The DNA we used to make the portrait was extracted from my semen, so, no, Marc wasn't present at that stage!

The collaboration was an arranged marriage in a sense. The Wellcome Trust was both interested in the sci-art aspect and in having something of me, and the National Portrait Gallery was interested in acquiring a Quinn. …