Art beat: National Portrait Gallery

28th September 2001 at 01:00

The National Portrait Gallery has just commissioned its first conceptual portrait, a portrait by British artist Marc Quinn of the UK's leading genetic scientist Sir John Sulston. Quinn, one of the Sensation generation, came to prominence with a frozen sculpture he made of his own head, cast in his own blood, and kept in suspended animation in a glass cryogenic chamber.

Sulston (who will be giving this Christmas's BBC Reith Lectures) was the man behind the human genome project, racing to keep the human DNA codes in the public domain and out of the hands of private patenters.

The portrait uses a laboratory process employed by Sulston during his work. A random segment of Sulston's DNA is held within a plate coated in translucent jelly. It appears as delicate dots shadowing the surface of the plate, like specks of algae floating in a
pond: like ancient creatures caught in amber.

"It's the first so-called abstract image in the portrait gallery," says Quinn, " but actually it's the most realistic and specific portrait in many ways."

The Image captures Sulston's genes, alongside all the genes he has shared with every one of his ancestors back to the primordial soup. With a highly polished frame, this genomic portrait also reflects the faces of today's and future viewers. "You could say it's a portrait of everything on Earth that's alive," says Quinn.

Quinn's portrait is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until February 10, 2002. Tel: 020 7306 0055. Visit or

A wonderfully informative display puts the image in context, explaining the history and development of the human genome project.

Read more ArtBeat in this week's TES Friday magazine.


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