Art Talk with Peter Johnson
Sarah Lucas' 'TITTIPUSSIDAD'
Thanks for joining us today to talk about Sarah Lucas' work, TITTIPUSSIDAD. My name's Peter Johnson, I'm the curator of projects at the National Gallery of Australia and I'd like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of the land on which the Gallery sits and where I'm joining you from today, from my home. It's a beautiful day in Canberra and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and also acknowledge the importance of all of the Aboriginal artists that we work with and artworks that we hold in the collection. I'm a man in my mid thirties with some shaggy lockdown hair that probably needs a cut, something resembling facial hair, fair skin, wearing a blue suit jacket and a blue shirt.
I'm really excited to be able to talk to you about Sarah Lucas. She's one of the UK's leading artists. This is her, a recent photo of her in her studio in Framlingham in Suffolk, in the UK. She lives in Benjamin Britten's old house. Sarah was born in 1962 but really came to prominence in the 80s and 90s alongside other artists you might've heard of like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, the Young British Artists as they came to be known. Sarah has had an extraordinary career over the last 30 years. I think the key thing about Sarah's work is understanding her sense of humour. Something that might seem at first confronting or maybe even offensive is actually just a really great sense of humour and a way to talk about difficult things. Things that otherwise might be too heavy she takes with a light touch. I just like to share a quote that she said to me when I interviewed her about her use of humour. She says, "When humour happens, things get good, less depressing. It's a kind of magic. Suddenly things make sense, contradictory things, hard to reconcile things. The same as jokes really or Freudian slips. They are a revelation of where the gaps are. The chinks in the armour of our seamless reality, making something concrete at that point is like slipping through the veil."
We're really lucky to have the first solo show of Sarah's work in Australia at the National Gallery at the moment. Unfortunately, we had to shut down after about a week and a half because of lockdown but it's on for a while and I'm sure lots of you will get the chance to see it in person. This is an installs shot from the show and it's a combination of five of her soft sculptures, five of those similar sculptures in bronze and the seven and a half meter tall wallpaper, which you can see here. It's a really extraordinary exhibition of all recent works made between 2018 and 2020.
Today, I'm going to be talking about two works from the show, TITTIPUSSIDAD, which has fantastically been brought into the National Collection. And so we'll be able to share it with audiences for a long time. But also the wallpaper that you can see here.
This is just a few other detail shots of some of the works in the show. You can see the soft sculptures, which are made from stockings stuffed with wool, but also in the way that she's translated that into these bronze figures, using this traditionally heroic material to still retain something that is fleshy and that is soft but becomes hard and resilient through that transformation of material.
This is just one of my favourite works in the show. This is Sugar which as Sarah describes "a bouquet of tits" that we had to sort of help reposition once they had arrived here to make sure that they were looking perky.
This was the first self portrait that Sarah ever made. She was just playing around in her backyard with her boyfriend at the time. And fellow Young British Artist, Gary Hume. Self portraiture was not something that she'd really explored before. She'd been interested in everyday materials. She'd been interested in bodies. She'd been interested in sort of aesthetic concerns but by turning the camera back on herself, she found something really powerful. This image from 1990 returns the male gaze, it takes on what she often uses food standing for body parts. I don't think I need to spell that out for all of you. But she takes what is otherwise perhaps a pornographic act and instead claims all the power in this image. It's not there for the male viewer's pleasure, it's there for her to devour, to consume and to stare back at the audience.
Later on in 2014, she found the contact sheet from that original photo shoot. And while the first image I showed you became sort of one of the iconic images of the Young British Artist generation, it was by going back through the previous images that Sarah found there were some really extraordinary other images and photographs as part of that shoot that she wanted to share. I think she also quite liked how she looked some 25 years previously, which is understandable. What's really interesting about these images in particular is it's the first time that Sarah found power in androgyny. She'd always been a bit of a tomboy, had skirted the line between the masculine and the feminine, which is something we'll see come up again in TITTIPUSSIDAD, but it was in these photos and in returning the viewer's gaze, that she'd found power in that and the power to destabilise what we think about when we think about the masculine and the feminine.
It's really extraordinary in the space as you saw in this image and some of the other images to have these old negatives, these photo stills reproduced at seven and a half meters tall. She becomes this monumental figure, sort of staring you down while you're in the space. Front and center here, we've got TITTIPUSSIDAD, the work that's now joined the National Collection. The work is made from cast concrete and cast bronze. It shows a headless figure draped over the back of a chair, the chair's in concrete, with sort of multiple breasts leaning up out of its torso and over the back of the chair and its legs crossed and arms draped behind. TITTIPUSSIDAD I think to understand it, you really need to understand the Bunny series that Sarah has been making since 1997.
The Bunnies started with a work called Bunny gets Snookered, where she made soft sculptures from stockings and wool and they were displayed around a pool table, a snooker table. In this first iteration, the figures are really abject. And when I say abject, it was a phrase in post-structuralist theory that was popularised by Julia Kristeva. But what I mean is the horror of both bodily and mentally of being confronted with something that blurs the line between other and self. These abject figures that are in a way sexually available, in a way ready to engage with the masculine gaze but are in no way presented for masculine pleasure. They're spent. They're abject. They're headless. They seem to blend with the furniture, blurring that line between the animate and the inanimate.
What's happened over the last 20 plus years, since Sarah has been making these figures, which you can see both in the soft sculptures in this show but also in TITTIPUSSIDAD, is that the sculptures, where once they were gritty, they were defeated, have become almost triumphant. They have their own character now. The soft sculptures wear great shoes and sit on mid-century furniture. Whereas the bronze figures in their solidity, in becoming bronze, have this reflective quality, have a sense in which they're hard and they can't be penetrated. They reject what a masculine figure or a masculine audience might want to do to women.
I always think with these figures that Sarah is sort of saying to a general masculine audience or to the male gaze that if you want women to be sexually available all of the time then this is what that looks like. It's not beautiful. It's not makeup, it's not heels and it's not pretty. It's something almost revulsive about it but also with a sense of humour. The figures are funny. I think that's what's important is always to find the humour in it, even as Sarah is talking about really serious things.
Here's some close ups of TITTIPUSSIDAD where you can see the amazing detail that Sarah has been able to capture during the casting process, from moving from soft to hard.
I just wanted to end on something which I think is important to understand where Sarah is coming from. She says, "I'm not trying to solve the problem. I'm exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it." These aren't necessarily activist works. They're not necessarily making a feminist point but what they're doing is taking the issue of how men treat women, they're taking the issue of how women's bodies are objectified and sexualized and returning that to the audience, to ask us to think about what we do with that, how we're implicated in that and how we feel going forward. I hope you all get the chance to come and see the show. It's really special opportunity to share Sarah's work with audiences here in Australia and thank you for joining us today.
Peter Johnson, Curator, Projects discusses Sarah Lucas’ TITTIPUSSIDAD (2018) on display in Project 1: Sarah Lucas.