Marc Quinn in Venice: There is No History, Only Stories

How would you try to summarize our turbulent times? What will future historians see when they look at the images of our era? These questions led artist Marc Quinn to create HISTORYNOW (2020 – present)1, his most recent solo exhibition in Venice. A (questionable) visual summary of the early 2020s, the exhibition uncovers deeper meanings of history, narratives, and truth. 

Marc Quinn – the artist who famously put a temporary monument celebrating Black Power on the emptied pedestal of Edward Colston in Bristol in the summer of 20202 – participated at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia this year with a collateral event in town. The exhibition HISTORYNOW was an attempt to gather the most iconic images of the 2020s so far, displaying them in the format that is most familiar to us: screenshots. With the spark of the Covid-19 pandemic, our screens have become the mediators of our world, “the primary vehicles of documentation and dissemination”3, as the exhibition booklet explains. Quinn presents the screenshots taken on his iPhone in the last three years as the artifacts of our era, the visual evidence that scientists and scholars will look back to in decades or maybe even centuries when trying to grasp the essence of our present.


HISTORYNOW. Cardi B, Instagram, 2021, Oil paint and pigment print on canvas, 240 x 110 cm

Writing digital (hi)stories

The exhibited artworks are part of Quinn’s ten-year History Paintings series,4 combining recent images of crucial global events with the tradition of history painting. Here, Quinn enlarged and pigment-printed screenshots from his mobile phone. These now monumentalized artifacts of our time tower above us in the exhibition space, and the once small images of distant events are now materialized and shifted into our physical space. Yet, Quinn does not simply display these seemingly objective screenshots, well aware that they present a distorted form of reality. These square-shaped images function as frames, creating a fragmentary reality that can never replace what Walter Benjamin infamously coined as the aura,5 the present physical experience of an event. Instead, Quinn paints over the enlarged images in acrylic and oil, sometimes sprinkling glitter and icy glass, creating expressive personal commentary on the displayed events.

Quinn chose events related to politics, like the Black Lives Matter protests, the right-wing storming of the United States Capitol after the presidential election victory of Joe Biden,6 and most recently, the invasion of Ukraine. Pop culture, too, is covered in this account of history with the #FreeBritney movement, Kim Kardashian’s iconic appearance at the 2021 Met Gala in a full-coverage black Balenciaga gown,7 and People Magazine naming Paul Rudd the Sexiest Man Alive 20218. The protests for transgender rights in South Dakota, Lil Nas X announcing his new album, the birth of Erin Bates as the first newborn with covid, an influencer drinking raw liver protein shakes on TikTok live streams, BBC’s article on the dooming extinction of polar bears9. All these events, life-changing or trite, are excavated from the archive of the internet.

Speaking of artifacts, the exhibition took place quite fittingly in the Archeological Museum of Venice, juxtaposing these contemporary artifacts with the traces of past civilizations. Rapper Cardi B announcing her second pregnancy in 2021 became an ancient Venus-like Goddess compared to those on the Greek vases in the display windows beneath. The image of Boston’s beheaded Christopher Columbus statue towered above the bust of an ancient emperor as if warning of a similar fate.

The exhibition was centered on something that the retelling of history tends to lack when addressing broader demographics: relatability. The images of the chosen events went viral on our phones, they were liked, commented, shared, and saved by millions of people worldwide. They are relatable to us because we live through these events right now.

HISTORYNOW. Kim at Met Ball, 2022, Oil paint and pigment print on canvas, 240 x 110 cm

The West and the Rest

Although these images are indeed crucial to the early 2020s, something still does not add up. When walking through the exhibition, one noticed something peculiar: most events take place in the West. The UK, the US, and European countries are mostly the stage of ‘global history’. Only four artworks of the exhibited 47 deal with events that do not take place primarily in the western hemisphere. A quite questionable distribution regarding the exhibition title. It sure is difficult to ignore that HISTORYNOW claims to be a universal retelling of global history. The fact that all these displayed events were subjectively chosen by a single person – a white, British, upper-middle class, cis-man – seems to fall short of dealing with the privilege and entitlement Quinn enjoys. As per art historian Dario Gamboni, the formation of history is highly subjective in itself: it is a process of selection, deciding what to dismiss and what to preserve.10

It is also important to emphasize that the screenshots come from Quinn’s phone, from his social media feed, and thus from his personal algorithm. This already renders objectivity impossible. He can only curate what has been digitally selected for him beforehand, presenting merely a fragmented perspective on reality. Therefore, Quinn’s selection cannot stand alone as the only and truthful mirror of our times.

The artist and the curatorial team further poorly engage with the implied ideology of juxtaposing these screenshots with geographically European artifacts. It is a long, eurocentric tradition to tie contemporaneity and especially whiteness to antiquity and its nostalgic civilizations, claiming cultural continuity and promoting white supremacist and racist agendas.11 Given that Quinn does not clearly and critically reflect this issue, it becomes a problem. 

150,000 red hearts, Instagram, 2021, Acrylic paint and pigment print on canvas, 240 x 110 cm.

Letting the voices speak through artistic allyship

I would not go as far as to accuse him of white saviourism as some reviews did in the past.12 I believe that Quinn genuinely did not want to be one-sided. He did not only include violent events of suffering, but also joyful news that bring hope for a brighter future like the goosebumps-worthy performance of Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of Biden or the overwhelming solidarity with healthcare workers protecting us at the forefront of the pandemic. I must say on his behalf that Quinn tried to decenter himself as the creator of these works. The News Room shows a series of interviews Quinn conducted with the photographers and subjects of the iconic images, giving them space to speak about their experiences and stories. 

To return on the eurocentric narrative that this exhibition unfortunately perpetuates Quinn possibly could not have seen himself, exactly because of his identity, as someone who can comment on events happening outside the systems and structures that he is a part of. Maybe this is the reason why Quinn included some overpainted screenshots with hidden text. Maybe these are the empty spaces that we are invited to fill with more stories and narratives, to at least attempt to make this exhibition an archive of history now.

Marc Quinn. HISTORYNOW, curated by Aindrea Emelife and Francesca Pini, was on view at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia until October 23, 2022. An exhibition catalogue is available for 35,00 EUR. 


Cover image:

#FirdaySept11, The New York Times, 2020, Oil paint and pigment print on canvas, 240 x 110 cm.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Jennifer Braun (2022, 7. November). Marc Quinn in Venice: There is No History, Only Stories. the ARTicle. Abgerufen am 23. Juni 2024, von

  1. Marc Quinn studio: Artworks HISTORYNOW (2020 – present), [08.10.2022] []
  2. See Di Liscia, Valentina: Artist Marc Quinn covertly installed a sculpture of activist Jen Reid in place of a bronze of Edward Colston toppled by protesters in Bristol last month. Hyperallergic, 15.07.2022, [08.10.2022] []
  3. Noorali, Yoel & Marc Quinn studio: Marc Quinn HISTORYNOW, exhibition guide, 2022, p. 1. []
  4. Marc Quinn studio: Artworks History Painting (2009 – present), [08.10.2022] []
  5. Benjamin, Walter: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1935. []
  6. [The Visual Journalism Team]: Capitol riots: A visual guide to the storming of Congress. BBC NEWS, 07.01.2021, [08.10.2022] []
  7. See Di Liscia, Valentina: The Best Thing About This Year’s Met Gala Are The Memes. Hyperallergic 14.09.2021, [08.10.2022] []
  8. Jordan, Julie: Paul Rudd Is PEOPLE’s 2021 Sexiest Man Alive: ‘I’m Getting Business Cards Made’. People’s, 10.11.2021. [04.11.2022] []
  9. Briggs, Helen and Gill, Victoria: Climate Change: Polar bears could be lost by 2100. BBC, 20.07.2020, [04.11.2022] []
  10. Gamboni, Dario: The Destruction of Art. Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since The French Revolution. London 1997. []
  11. Talbot, Margaret: The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture. The New Yorker, 22.10.2018, [08.10.2022] []
  12. Price, Thomas J.: The problem with Marc Quinn’s Black Lives Matter sculpture. The Art Newspaper, 16.07.2020, [08.10.2022] []

Jennifer Braun

Jennifer Braun studiert Kunstgeschichte und Romanistik im Bachelor an der Universität zu Köln. Ihre Faszination gilt der Symbiose von Sprache und Bild. Zudem betreibt sie den Kunstgeschichte-Blog @aesthetistory auf TikTok.

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