The Golden Touch

August 11, 2011

"Siren" artist Marc Quinn

Image Sourced from Popular Fidelity

In 2008, the British Museum commissioned a life-size sculpture of the model Kate Moss. The artwork, called Siren, is made entirely of gold and is said to be the largest gold sculpture created since the days of ancient Egypt, although it’s impossible to check whether this is true. Siren was placed on show in the museum’s Nereid Gallery near a statue of a bathing Aphrodite. My immediate impression on seeing Kate Moss’s otherwise familiar image is how tiny she looks, accentuated by the fact that she is knotted in a particularly uncomfortable-looking yoga position, though this may be an optical illusion ~ we are unused, after all, to seeing so much of the shining metal at once.

The gold, I am disappointed to find, is not polished to a high gloss but has a steely brushed finish, which elicits a high sparkle from the grains in the textured surface, not the burnished glow I had expected to see. There are signs of pitting in the casting, which a different goldsmith might have taken care of. The unique qualities of the metal that have made it precious to cultures since antiquity seem poorly served. Only the face is perfectly smooth, and is immediately reminiscent of the funerary mask of Tutenkhamun.

The lifeless staring visage has the disturbing effect, entirely unexpected given the high public profile of its subject, of plucking the spectator out of time: this is no longer a rendering of the twenty-first-century celebrity, but a depersonalized, detemporalized figure whose sharp nose and pouting lips belong less to a living person than to a death mask or votive figure.

The price put on the statue was £1.5 million. It was the whim of the artist, Marc Quinn, that the work be fabricated from gold of equal mass to the model’s fifty-kilogramme body, so that in addition to appearing life-size, it could be said to represent her weight in gold, perhaps raising in the mind of the astute onlooker thoughts of ransom and slavery. In solid gold, I calculate, Kate would be shrunk to the size of a garden ornament. Quinn’s piece must therefore be hollow, which may also be an artistic comment of some kind.

Extract from Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, 2011

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