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Between truth and absurdity*

Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas, which opened at Tate Britain in September 2023, is the artist's heartfelt and provocative greeting to the audiences. We discuss Lucas's practice through the works in the exhibition


Text: Yıldız Öztürk


Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS, Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023, Photo: Tate (Lucy Green)


For nearly four decades, Sarah Lucas has mischievously disrupted the presumed meanings of everyday objects, which are conventionally considered neutral. Emerging in the 1990s as a prominent member of the Young British Artists group, a cohort that has long secured its place in the contemporary art canon, Lucas has consistently defied conventional artistic norms. When discussing Lucas’s art from that period until the present day, it is impossible to overlook the juxtaposition of provocative and humorous descriptors.


The exhibition Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas, which opened on September 28, 2023 at Tate Britain and run until January 14, 2024, appears to be a sincere yet provocative greeting from the artist to her audience. “Lucas’s exhibition title HAPPY GAS – a reference to nitrous oxide – could be part of a newspaper headline about anti-social behaviour in 2023 Britain. Political promises to ban the sale and recreational use of the drug form many anxious stories in the British press. HAPPY GAS is also reminiscent of NHS labour wards and dental extractions – like many aspects of Lucas’s work linking to her use of very British motifs and references.”[1]


The entrance of the exhibition, divided into four galleries, features the artist’s early works. Images featured in tabloids emerge as a vivid expression of the ingrained masculine visual culture that has become an integral part of our lives. The artist humorously brings to the museum the male gaze underlying the representation of the female body in the media, reversing familiar discourses through wordplay. By introducing slang and everyday language into the museum, once considered sacred spaces, the artist blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life: immortalizing tabloids by incorporating the language of the street into the exhibition. Frequently leveraging the power of collage, the artist introduces the effective language of montage, deconstructing meanings and constructing new wholes. At a point where the meanings of the parts remain intact, this whole creates grotesque scenes.


From the moment we engage with the exhibition, the richness of the artist’s material repertoire and expressive language becomes apparent. Installations and sculptures utilizing materials such as chairs, buckets, candles, and motorcycle helmets, intervened tabloids, and photographs spanning entire walls reflect Lucas’s elaborate artistic language. The accessibility of materials for the artist also mirrors the class dynamics within her artistic practice. The artist’s explanations on the wall serve as a curatorial choice facilitating a dialogue with the audience. In this regard, the exhibition immediately draws the audience in, triggering a sense of curiosity, opening doors to exploration and experience. From the outset, the exhibition unveils the comfort zones created by masculinity, starting with the first gallery. The chair, often associated with masculinity, almost stands before us like a throne. In works such as Wanker (1999), the artist playfully mocks this perception, portraying a scene where a mechanical arm, roughly moving up and down, caresses a nonexistent penis, thereby ridiculing the imagery of masculinity.


Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS, Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023. ZEN LOVESONG, 2023; GODDESS, 2022; Eating a Banana, 1990, Photo: Tate (Lucy Green)

Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS, Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023. BUNNY RABBIT, 2022; ZEN LOVESONG; 2023; GODDESS, 2022, Photo: Tate (Lucy Green)


As we transition to the second gallery, we encounter Eating a Banana (1990), which adorns the walls. In this piece, captured from various perspectives by Gary Hume, we observe Lucas in diverse postures while eating a banana. The photographs attain iconic status through the sexual connotations evoked by banana “consumption” and their colossal dimensions. As for the installations centrally positioned in this gallery, we may consider them akin to Bunny (1997). Displayed in a procession-like atmosphere, these bodies generally exude an aura of desire and provocation. Fat Doris (2023) sits confidently in a large throne-like armchair without compromising her sexiness, although she looks tired. The imposition of a standardized beauty ideal is manifest in stockings filled to the brim, contorting literally and figuratively.


Bodies coded as objects of desire seem confident. These headless bodies leisurely sprawl across their designated space, extending their legs, and embodying assertive personalities. The nylon-clad padded legs deviate significantly from the provocative allure imagined through a heterosexual male gaze, instead possessing a provocativeness rooted in an intrinsic tone. Not for the desire of others, but emanating from within. Lucas, inverting the masculine gaze, ingeniously constructs a new realm of imagination infused with humor, thereby facilitating the political reclaiming of meaning. The scale, much like the subject matter and materials upon which the artist focuses, deconstructs the meaning of the objects.


Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS, Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023. Fat Doris, 2023 and Tit Tom 2, 2023, Photo: Tate (Lucy Green)


The colossal phallus positioned at the entrance of the third gallery may not elicit astonishment from those familiar with Lucas’s art, but for those encountering the artist for the first time, it can be notably surprising. The artist gauges the impact of the grotesque phallus on the spectator. Lucas’s works, akin to a handful of cold water, splash onto the audiences’ face, rousing them. While delicately mocking masculinity and the male gaze, the artist relies on the power of humor. Disrupting tendencies that objectify women and scrutinizing male-centered desire, the artist dismantles prevailing norms in this visual culture realm. Revealing the paradoxical nature of my position, one that refuses to relinquish pleasure in the world of visual culture but also refuses to accept it in its existing form. Examples of masculine self-portraits are also present in the third gallery. “(…) the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin succinctly describes the thrust of this visual pun: ‘As in so many of her works, femininity and masculinity are represented as masquerade, as constructions rather than essences.’”[2] Seated on the ground with legs spread open, directly facing the audience, the artist’s self-portrait – Self-Portrait with Skull (1997) – alludes to the fluidity within gender and sexual identity categories. The placement of the colossal and visibly unhealthy Sandwich (2004-20) in front of this portrait signifies the artist’s close relationship with the theme of death. The prevalence of cigarettes, unhealthy sandwiches, images indicating a passion for speed, and scenes in the exhibition convey the message that death is not functioning as a natural process in contemporary society.


Sarah Lucas, HAPPY GAS, Installation View at Tate Britain, 2023. This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven, 2018 and Red Sky portraits 2018, Photo: Tate (Lucy Green)


The fourth and final gallery features a divided car sculpture, creating a grandiose scene of a car crash. As a result of the accident, a seat had been ejected outward, and the artist had covered this seat with cigarettes. The front of the Jaguar is also covered in cigarettes. Against this ornate image, the rear of the car is charred by fire. Considering the concepts of speed, cars and death, it can be said that this work is an indicator of machismo. This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven (2018), evokes the charred seat adorned with a motorcycle helmet and cigarette, featured in the second gallery. Both are efforts to prove masculinity. But it seems that the result has turned into a death ceremony for masculinity. The depiction of a grimy porcelain toilet in the last gallery perfectly encapsulates Lucas’s comprehensive perspective on human existence. Upon entering the exhibition, the audience encounters a masturbation scene and bids farewell to the exhibition with a filthy toilet. Inferno (2000) is very different from Marcel Duchamp’s gleaming and well-kept Fountain (1917). There are two walnuts tied to a cigar on top of Inferno. It’s a pretty obvious allusion for those who visited the exhibition and familiar with the artistry of Lucas. Oscillating between the familiar and the absurd, the objects show how fragile the roles assigned to bodies are.


 

*This review was conducted as part of a project supported by TÜBİTAK (Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) 2219 Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

[1] Exhibition leaflet, p. 3.

[2]  Claire Voon, “Sarah Lucas’s Perverse, Feminist Art Is Vital in the #MeToo Era,” accessed November 27, 2023,  https://www.vice.com/en/article/gynyk3/sarah-lucas-new-museum-perverse-feminist-art-metoo-1.

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