Contemporary artist SARAH LUCAS, whose wickedly witty sculptures use ordinary objects to explore gender, sex and death, reflects on time, her hardscrabble beginnings and the potency of feminism in art. By PETER JOHNSON, Curator, Projects.
PETER JOHNSON (PJ): COVID-19 has had significant impacts on all our lives – particularly in the UK. How are you? And how has it has affected your creative practice?
SARAH LUCAS (SL): I think what I’ve enjoyed about it most, especially in the first lockdown when the world outside the window really went quiet, is the sense that nothing needs to be done in any great hurry. It reminded me of life some decades ago when time seemed to stretch and yawn. You could go days or a week when the phone didn’t ring. There was time to get a bit bored and then start something, read a book or get into action making something – and really spend the time with it. Or not, as the case may be. One didn’t have the feeling then of being watched or expected to account for every moment of the day or even the obligation to be useful.
When I come to think of it, that is the kind of time that I hanker after and do my best to preserve. The feeling that time is my own. Initially, when everything stopped, I realised how far from that, in my own habitual thinking to myself, I’ve become in recent years. And I think this has happened to everybody.
PJ: How did you get started? What drew you to art as a way of making sense of, and being in, the world?
SL: Well, I’ve always been making things, not for art’s sake, exactly. I think it must have started with mud pies. Just keeping myself company. It’s still that to some extent.
I left school when I was 16, dying to get out, then had a good couple of years playing records and talking with friends and travelling a bit. Then it struck me to wonder what I was going to do with my life. What I’d been up to had run out of steam. I realised it needed input of some kind – something to talk about, something to do. Someone I met at work suggested art college might suit me. I spent a couple of years doing all the evening classes I could get my hands on and getting a portfolio together. Then I applied.
PJ: You studied at [prestigious London art college] Goldsmiths, surrounded by many contemporaries who would go on to have remarkable careers. Tell us about that experience – was there a sense that something special was happening?
SL: I fancied the college in the first place mainly for not having to choose between disciplines, but I rapidly gravitated towards sculpture once I was there. There was a big conceptual side, too, and lots of part-time and visiting artists – many of them close in age to the students. So one began to feel a part of something going on in the world, it came into focus.
Colleges now seem to be under enormous pressure to prove they’re ticking all the right boxes. That’s a shame. There needs to be a truly free art school type of place where people can grow into being themselves. For me, that’s what art is, finding a way to do what you like and making that valid. Validate yourself. That should be point A. One has to ask: Am I convinced by this? What’s it saying back to me? That’s difficult, too. If it was easy, everybody would do it. Of course, it might and often does look easy when it’s done. And a lot of people think: I could have done that. But they didn’t. It’s taking a mental leap and finding your own feet that’s important. It’s less about fulfilling existing criteria and more about what might be possible and what you dream it could be.
I didn’t have a sense back then of an impending career – let alone one as an actual contemporary artist. In the first place I didn’t know there was such a thing. I was totally up for doing things, though.
PJ: You use everyday materials – stockings, cigarettes, foodstuffs – in your work. What about these materials draws you to them? Why are these materials important to your exploration of gender, sex and death?
SL: In the first place they were just handy. And cheap. And full of connotations. At college I’d been grappling with a lot of more abstract materials. I’d buy a huge amount of blue plastic, for instance, and see what I could do with that.
And that seemed meaningful at college. When the college context was over, less so. I found myself in a room at home with a pile of something or other that was taking up all the available space and thinking, Who cares about this stuff? Do I? So I started again using readily available, ordinary stuff that didn’t take up so much space and seemed to be already imbued with some sort of content. Worldly content. Whether that be tabloid newspapers or nylon tights or my own image or fruit and veg . . . These t hings seemed to me to be currency and language that had to do with real life, everybody’s real life: I’m in the world and what’s it all about? That sort of thing.
PJ: The bunnies in your upcoming show at the National Gallery have a very different disposition to your earlier bunnies. Where the sculptures in Bunny Gets Snookered [Lucas’s 1997 installation at Sadie Coles HQ in London] are entirely abject – limp, sexually available yet filled with ennui – the newer bunnies have a greater sense of individual character, even dignity. How have the bunnies changed in the years you’ve been making them?
SL: Well, the times have changed a lot since then. In those days London was quite abject, and my life was too in many ways. Living in rundown areas and having studios in half derelict warehouses. Drinking in the roughest pub and having to get everywhere by foot or on a bike at all hours of the day and night . . . Also, I used floppier wire in those days. Things evolve in all kinds of ways, materially and in one’s own thinking, out in the world.
At college and even before that at evening classes, I aspired to making something beautiful as my high ideal. On leaving college – and I can’t leave disillusion out of the equation – I started to make things with, I felt, a much more gritty reality. And certainly I was living in a gritty reality. I also wanted to be hardcore and a radical, I expect, like most young people. These days I often feel inclined to cheer things up. Lift the spirits. My own, first and foremost. Although I’d like to think I keep some sort of edge.
PJ: The bronzes, in particular, also start to mix masculine and feminine elements. DICK ‘EAD sports a very proud and prominent penis. What draws you to androgyny? How do the bunnies feel about mixing with the masculine?
SL: Masculinity was made for bunnies. It’s a bunny plaything. Or is it the other way around? I was always a bit of a tomboy. It makes sense really to want to do a lot of the things that are traditionally the preserve of men and boys – because that’s most things. I didn’t give it too much thought. Post-college, reading a bit of Freud, penis and absence-of-penis stuff, it made me laugh, but I also realised there is something to it. Through that lens, art making seems a decidedly macho activity – in the sense that it is manifestation; what’s present rather than what’s absent. That got me wondering about what it is to be a women artist, how to mobilise it. Then I read Andrea Dworkin and she really turned my head (spun my nut). She aided my dawning realisation that it’s all a construction and could therefore be constructed quite differently. If we wanted it. So I found myself playing with these kinds of ideas and they seemed to have some potency, in the art world, at least.
PJ: The exhibition features monumental reproductions of images from the contact sheet of your work Eating a Banana. What draws you to using your own image? What brings you back to this work after such a long time?
SL: Eating a Banana was the first ‘self-portrait’ I made. It came about quite casually, as a lot of things do. I was sharing a studio with Gary Hume, who was my boyfriend at the time, and I asked him to take some pictures of me eating this banana – it was just the one banana. A very off-the-cuff idea. Looking at the contact sheets, one in particular jumped out at me, so I had a print made and put it in an exhibition. Somehow it seemed to help the other work I was making. It helped to put myself in the picture and lent the other sculptural works a bit of my personality and angle. It seemed to become iconic very quickly, among my coterie, at least. It’s very convincing when something like that happens. You start to believe in some magic about the image itself, like it has to be that image and no other would do, sort of thing. Many years later, rummaging through drawers looking for something or other, I came across the contacts. I thought: Actually, they’re all really good. And I liked seeing my younger self. Later still, when I had an idea to make a black and white room as part of an exhibition, I had the idea to use them as a wallpaper. Often when I’m hanging an exhibition I realise it would benefit from the addition of something or other and have to act on that quite fast, whether that’s getting images printed up or making some ad hoc sculpture, or just introducing some furniture. I’m thinking on my feet a lot.
PJ: So much of your work pushes back against a sense of propriety. Through its crassness – or some might say honesty – it rejects authority and repressive regimes, especially those based on class. What draws you to this subject matter and way of making?
SL: A kind of desperation. Exasperation.
PJ: On a similar note, humour is central to so much of your work, whether that be through the use of visual puns or pushing back against our expectations. What do you find useful about humour as an artistic strategy?
SL: It’s not a strategy in the sense of being a plan, something I set out with. It happens. 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.
PJ: There’s something very raw and mythic about the newest bunnies – both the soft sculptures and the bronzes. They almost recall the Venus of Willendorf with their unapologetic embodiment of gendered forms. How has the relationship of the bunnies to the representation of women changed over the years you have been making them?
SL: A lot has changed with the century. In the ’70s and ’80s I grew up in the feminist movement, which tended to be made up largely of hippie-ish and also butch lesbian types (I was living in squats and short-life housing co-ops at the time), women who were against the definition of females as sex objects. Sexy attire and lots of makeup was the province of women in the glamour and sex industries and women out to ‘snare’ a man. As it turned out, these days women in powerful positions in government and running companies tend to be very glamorous. They may wear a well-cut power suit but they’re still likely to be tottering about on six-inch stiletto heels in full makeup and hair. It’s beginning to seem like any serious political challenge to the likes of Trump is going to have to be a huge bullet-breasted, mega-high-heel-wearing, big-painted-lips sort of super-heroine cartoon character.
PJ: You’ve been making bunnies for 30 years. What draws you back to them time and again? How do you feel about repetition – or, more accurately, iteration – in your work?
SL: I’ve tended to be wary of repetition. It struck me years ago in college days that many successful artists seem to only make versions of the same thing they made a name for themselves with in the first place. I thought: Crikey, that looks boring, like having a job in a factory or something. So I set about being eclectic about materials and methods. A period of making cigarette works, for instance, or plaster casting. Then a bit of messing about with tights. Building up a repertoire, I suppose. Often long gaps when I don’t use certain materials at all. So going back to something is usually very fresh – something else is ready to happen.
PJ: And finally, when do you know a work is finished?
SL: When I know its character. When it becomes my friend. When I don’t want to tamper with it anymore. When I wouldn’t want it to be some other way.
"When humour happens, things get good. Less depressing. It’s a kind of magic. Suddenly things make sense."