Lorenzo Quinn: Artist for the people

Lorenzo Quinn, Building Bridges, on the Grand Canal in Venice in 2019. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn/

Lorenzo Quinn, Building Bridges, on the Grand Canal in Venice in 2019. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn/

Lorenzo Quinn began his career as an actor, following in the footsteps of his Oscar-winning father Anthony Quinn. However, it was when he played the leading role in the 1991 biopic Dali, that he followed his love of art. Now a world-renowned sculptor he is best known for his contemporary sculptures of human hands. His 2017 work ‘Support’ was installed in Venice’s Grand Canal and made a striking comment on climate change and this year, ‘Building Bridges’ was installed in the basin of the Arsenale in Venice. Composed of six pairs of monumental hands, 15 metres high and 20 metres wide, the spectacular and enormous sculpture speaks of humanity’s commonality, with an emphasis of bridging differences in all aspects of life – geographically, philosophically, culturally and emotionally.

Q&A with Lorenzo Quinn for Shawati, Issue 4 

You began your career as a painter so what was it that triggered your decision to go into sculpture?

I have always loved drawing. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid and I believe that it is truly the foundation for any artist. But yes, I started as a painter. In my childhood, I fell in love with the work of Salvador Dali and was influenced by him - his creativity was so unique. Then, I landed the role of Dali in the 1991 film and when I played him, I realised that I was never going to be as good as him. And anyway, he had already been. So, I think that was the turning point. After playing Dali in the movie, I knew I had to find my own niche as an artist and that is when I started moving towards sculpture.

And did you leave surrealism behind?

Not immediately. My first sculptures were surreal but they were early works. The transition was a slow process that took at least five years. In art, nothing is ever immediate.

Most of your sculptures are now figurative with a particular focus on the human hand. Why do you choose this symbol?

For me, one of the most important things about my work is the message, or what I call the fourth dimension. I believe that art should go beyond being merely decorative and that it should transmit meaning. I want to have a conversation with the people in an intelligible way. If it is a conversation, it can’t be a monologue. The other person has to be able to understand you and that is why, especially with my public work, I often use hands. Hands are universal, everyone understands gestures.

The installation of Lorenzo Quinn’s Building Bridges in Venice, 2019. Courtesy Lorenzo Quinn

The installation of Lorenzo Quinn’s Building Bridges in Venice, 2019. Courtesy Lorenzo Quinn

 How important are titles in your work?

Believe it or not, the title is born before the sculpture - that is how important they are to me. Before I start any sculpture, I decide on the subject matter, which is often the hardest part. After I have decided the subject, I find working titles and from that, I will jot down a few words and it will develop from there. My sculpture is always very reflective of the title.

 The message is obviously important to you with the 2017 work ‘Support’ addressing climate change and this year’s ‘Building Bridges’ talking about the need for peace and unity. How much impact do you believe art can really have to such issues?

 The nicest compliment that I got from Support, and I got thousands, was a gentleman who said after seeing that sculpture he made adjustments to his every-day life. It impacted him so much that he started making small actions such as reducing plastic, changing his car and saving water. That image did something that a thousand words could not have done. My message was also about protecting our heritage, which in Venice, in particular, is at great risk. So yes, I think that art can change things, of course! People are tired of politicians, everyone has their own private agenda and very few think about the well-being of the nation and the world. So, instead, the people listen to people in the public eye who do not have an agenda other than the well-being of the world. We don’t know the answer to climate change but I do realise that this is happening at a very increased rate and if I have a platform, I want to do what I can.

Lorenzo Quinn, Support, installed on the Grand Canal in Venice in 2017. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn

Lorenzo Quinn, Support, installed on the Grand Canal in Venice in 2017. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn

2019 is turning out to be quite a year with your work ‘Empowerment’ unveiled as part of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Foundation. How do you feel when your work receives such a high-profile platform? 

Honestly, it makes me a little scared, because now all eyes are on me and before I was doing my thing under the radar. But at the same time I try not to think about public success and instead, I surround myself by my closest family and friends who are not afraid to tell me as it is and to keep me grounded. Having said all of that, I’m grateful that people are starting to recognise me and my many years of hard work are paying off – as long as it doesn’t go to my head!

Let’s talk about personal branding. You have managed to achieve what every artist aspires to – work that is clearly recognisable as yours. Did you consider this when building your profile?

Not at all. What I do comes from the heart. It is who I really am. My art is a reflection of me. All of my art has my fingerprint on it because it comes from within me so everything I do, everything has the same branding to it. However, I wouldn’t choose to use that word. I don’t do it on purpose. Also, I’m very lucky because I have been able to manage to stay away from being boxed in by the hand sculptures. Not all my work is about the hand and that means I haven’t created a limitation for myself.

Lorenzo Quinn, This is Not a Game. For the 2011 Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn

Lorenzo Quinn, This is Not a Game. For the 2011 Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Lorenzo Quinn

 Have you ever considered working in the Middle East?

Actually I have considered living both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. My idea was to build a foundry in the UAE because there is no foundry anywhere in the region. I went as far as projecting and planning it but it didn’t work out in the end. I really love the region and I’d love to come back.

The UAE has a lack of public art, which is something that is slowly changing. For example,  a new commissioned sculpture by Gerry Judah was unveiled in Sharjah recently. Can I ask your opinion about the importance of public art – especially sculpture?

Public art is essential to every city. Once a city reaches a certain point in its development, it needs art work. It is a bit like a building a house. You start with the walls and the roof and then the furniture but it is the art that gives a house its identity. So, for me, a city’s identity is in its public art. It represents the status and wealth of the city. You need areas where people can gather and share images on social media and ultimately these are what shape the memories that they take away with them. It may be just the finishing touch to any city but, in my opinion, this is what gives a city the fingerprint of a true metropolis.

With this is mind, what do you think can be done to get more public art in the UAE?

The good thing about places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai is that there are not large committees standing in the way of making big decisions like this. So, it is just getting the right people to realise that it is important and as you said, that is already happening. Of course, it takes time and I’m in no doubt that soon, the UAE will have lots of public art.

Finally, what can we expect from 2020 from Lorenzo Quinn?

Well, I’m travelling all across the world on different projects but I am also in the midst of preparing a very ambitious project related to our future and protecting nature. It is a sculptural project and I hope to be able to materalise it. This is by far the biggest dream I’ve ever had so I really hope it becomes a reality.