Marc Quinn hopes ‘first migrating artwork’ will also raise $30m for charities
For Aghiad Malik, a refugee from Syria, blood had only ever symbolised one thing: death. “It was a nightmare, seeing red on the streets,” he says. “Even to think about blood was horrific.”
But soon it will have another meaning. He is one of around 5,000 people whose blood will be used to create Odyssey, a new work by British artist Marc Quinnthat will be displayed outside the New York Public Library from next September . The not-for-profit work intends to shine a spotlight on the refugee crisis while raising $30m (£23m) for charities working to alleviate it.
Odyssey has been three years in the making. What started as a sketch on the back of a chocolate wrapper in 2015 has since developed into a fully realised concept: a pair of cubes, each containing a tonne of frozen blood. One cube will contain the blood of refugees, the other the blood of non-refugees, including celebrities such as Kate Moss, Jude Law and Sir Paul McCartney. But the public will not be told which cube is which, leaving them to ponder the essential similarities we all share as human beings.
“The fundamental point of the sculpture is that under the skin, we’re all the same,” says Quinn, who will also be unaware which cube is which. “You will see two sculptures made from blood but you won’t know who they’re from.”
If the idea sounds simple, then the practicalities have been anything but. To draw blood from 5,000 people, Quinn will set up mini-laboratories in several cities across the world starting from January. He says that he has had to go through medical ethics boards and taken legal advice to make sure everything is conducted with the same professional standards as a clinical trial. Donors will only be required to give as much blood as they feel able to, and the project will be open to all ages and with all kinds of blood conditions.
Taking the project on tour will bring more practical concerns. As the cubes are likely to get damaged if transported as they are, the work will need to be melted down, recast into smaller cubes and refrozen, before being melted down again at the new location and cast once more as large cubes.
Quinn likes to view Odyssey as the world’s “first migrating artwork” and plans to show it in London and around Europe, as well as through Africa and the Middle East. To protect the cubes from the weather, they will be housed in a transparent, steel-framed pavilion designed by Norman Foster.
Every person who donates blood to Odyssey will also contribute a short video message. The celebrity pieces that have been recorded so far tend to focus on the positive message of the project, in contrast to the often harrowing stories told by the refugees.
Zohre Esmaeli, an Afghan refugee, talks about travelling with the Russian mafia when she was just 13. Hass Agili, who fled medical school in Libya after he was outed as a gay man by a friend, talks about seeing people he knew being thrown from high buildings, and beheadings taking place in stadiums full of onlookers. The videos will appear on advertising hoardings around New York – and each subsequent city – to promote the project.
Quinn said he included celebrities to grab the attention of people who might not normally listen to refugee stories, but also to emphasise the notion of blood as a leveller. “It’s really about how we value human beings,” he says. “I wanted to put famous people alongside some of the least valued people in the world, and put them on equal platforms and give them equal voice.”
One of those celebrities, Moss, says: “To pick up your whole family and move them has got to be the last-ditch attempt at having to make a life somewhere else. I think Odyssey is something people haven’t seen before. It’s such a strong image: the blood, the colour, and being in a box in a public space. You see people of all different races, size and shapes. The one thing about blood is that it is the same for everyone.”
As well as raising awareness, Quinn’s project aims to raise huge sums for refugee causes. He has set up the charity Human Love and paired up with the International Rescue Committee, which is led by the former foreign secretary David Miliband, along with several smaller frontline charities. They are hoping to raise between $10m and $12m from selling the artwork. Another $20m will hopefully be raised through fundraising drives. Quinn hopes to gain permission from some donors to trace their DNA, which will inspire future works such as tracking the migration patterns of each cube.
It is not the first time Quinn has used blood in his work. He gained widespread recognition in 1991 with Self, a cast of his head created from 10 pints of his blood, immersed in frozen silicone. He says he was interested in making another blood project but it was not until the refugee crisis that he felt the material fitted the subject. After envisaging the project, Quinn visited Berlin in 2016 to meet refugees, unsure as to whether they would find it interesting. “Luckily, everyone wanted to be involved,” he says. “Because if you don’t have anything, and you can still give something, it becomes an empowering thing.”
Quinn thinks art has an important role to play in helping the world remember atrocities and crises, long after the news cycle has moved on. He says: “You remember Guernica because Picasso painted it. Otherwise it’s just another battle in the Spanish civil war. To me this refugee crisis is something that should remain in the collective memory of the world.”
As for Malik, the project has already helped change his mindset. He says: “When I heard about the project I thought ‘no, blood can help also. I shouldn’t be afraid of seeing blood or giving blood.’ If we are black, white, any colour ... at the end of the day we are red. We are united.”
People can register to donate blood or money to the project at bloodcube.org.