Sarah Lucas: Humorous Subversion from “Feminism” to a “Social Context”

TEXT:Lin Lu and translated by Sue    TIME: 2019.11.13

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When it takes an effort to visit an exhibition, usually those with frank and straightforward work are the most popular. Presented by the Red Brick Art Museum, Sarah Lucas’ first solo exhibition in China makes us feel the almost rude honesty and courage of her art. Perhaps when she was confronted with various forms of subversion of concepts on “sex”, “feminism” is no longer all that Sarah Lucas wants to express. This exhibition is a retrospective of Sarah Lucas’ oeuvre over the past 30 years from the age of YBAs (Young British Artists) while bringing a humorous and subversive experience of related concepts such as sex, gender, class, and social context to Chinese viewers.

From YBAs to Her First Exhibition in China

In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of young artists who attracted a lot of attention emerged in the UK and they were known as YBAs (Young British Artists). In 1988, Sarah Lucas participated in the Freeze, an exhibition organized by 16 students led by Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths, University of London and she then became one of the earliest members of YBAs. After the exhibition, the YBAs group gradually become the core strength of British contemporary art. Later, Sarah Lucas’ works gradually showed her unique, bold and playful style. In 1993, she teamed up with Tracey Emin to start the six-month The Shop program at Bethnal Green. This project, highlighted Sarah Lucas’ potential in tapping into the art of the ready-made in everyday life. Her creative ideas and styles became more mature when she participated in another representative exhibition of the YBAs in 1997, Sensation.

Sarah Lucas’ works are not only endowed with the artistic characteristics of YBAs such as attracting attention by being eccentric and eclectic but she also paid unique attention to social perspectives such as sex, gender, identity and feminism, which enable her to be a unique British artist. After that, she represented the UK in the 2015 Venice Biennale and held the exhibition I SCREAM DADDIO. In 2018, Sarah Lucas presented Au Naturel, her solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York, USA. In addition to reviewing her career in the past 30 years , this exhibition at the Red Brick Art Museum features a special exhibition area of documentaries, by presenting her 25-year photographic work highlighting the scenes that she worked on and lives with Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Angus Fairhurst, Mat Collishaw, as well as Jake and Dinos Chapman, which have been recorded since 1990s. They once again brought viewers back to the art scenes of YBAs and the post-avant-garde era.

Reflections from the Localto the Whole

Do artists have to use brushes to create works of art? Perhaps Marcel Duchamp has already told the answer. In her original artistic practice, Sarah Lucas chose the Found Object, which is everywhere in everyday life, as her own creative material. Through this exhibition and her artworks over nearly three decades, we will find that the daily items of her choices include furniture, food, tabloids, stockings, toilets and cigarettes as the medium of her creation. Sarah Lucas uses the parts of everyday objects to represent the whole as her way of creation. These objects are derived from a whole perspective of life. Once they become the display of the works, they are separated from their inherently certain environment. Its partial display has a strong projective association. The choice of everyday objects provides a great degree of freedom for her expression. From the first work of the exhibition, it can be clearly perceived that VOX POP DORIS (2018) is a pair of water-proof boots made of concrete, it is placed in the middle of the entrance to the museum. The boots that stand up are like they are worn on a sexy woman, but we cannot actually see the female body. When you look up from the giant sole, you might feel like an erotic tease. Here, the boots became a symbol of female signs, showing a kind of absurdity and stalwart on the surface of the mottled and rough concrete. The symbol of the female is enlarged, like bare sex.

From the partial representation of the overall creation method which undergoes the creative career of Sarah Lucas. Bunny sculpture series was started in 1997, filled stockings become part of the female body: thighs or arms, chairs as part of another body symbol, flowing in various cross and entangled postures indicating a hint of craving. In the work Get Hold of This (1994), the arms are separated from the body and placed in a cross shape, it is impossible to judge whether the green resin arms are from a man or a woman. The gesture, full of provocative gestures, makes people return to questioning the male visual rights. Michele (2015), which was exhibited at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, is a cast of female lower limbs with a cigarette in the genital area, and the lower part of the female body becomes a challenge to the traditional female image of Muse, which is full of extreme visual challenges for the viewer, perhaps she should not be so straightforward to show the teasing of women’s private parts. Sarah Lucas uses a variety of objects to create a partial or symbolic expression of the male and female bodies, projecting a straightforward, bold, and extreme expression of her artistic creation.

Materializationand Symbolismof Male and Female Characters

“Materialization” and “symbolism” of male and female characters are also Sarah Lucas’ creative ways. The first way is about “materialization” of “gender” features. The sexual reproduction of genders is freely expressed by various inexpensive items. The nakedness of the female body, the enlargement of the male genitals, and the presentation of the masculine photos are all unscrupulously subverting and challenging the perspectives of the traditional gender space. In Sarah Lucas’ early work, Au Naturel (1994), she uses a worn-out mattress, a bucket, a pair of melons, a cucumber and a few oranges, and other items are placed in the space. Viewers cannot help but think of a naked couple lying in bed through the way she placed the items. Such a materialized sexy scene, in addition to producing an intuitive association with sex, she creates an empty plot that brings viewers into thinking about death, reproduction, time, and nothingness. Critic Amna Malik argues that we are placed in a position of spectatorship that makes us see “sex” as so many dismembered parts, with no apparent morality attached―no implication of guilt, shame or embarrassment. In the process of materialization, there is a disintegration of male rights and a provocation of patriarchal connections. The gender vision space is unscrupulously subverted and challenged by Sarah Lucas. Similar works include Two Fried Eggs and A Kebab (1992), with two fried eggs and a barbeque on the table to represent the basic elements of the female body. The technique of materializing the female image, as if the girl who is naked, and she will be tasted by the passing males at any time. Similar works include Nude No.1 and Nude No.2.

The second work breaks the stereotype of genders by “symbolic” items. Sarah Lucas uses masculine items as important symbols and forms a series of expressions that subvert the traditional identity of men, drawing out the actions of violence, destruction, and death dominated by men. Symbolic works seem to be more feminist, because all of this is a male-specific act created by a female artist. Sarah Lucas was born in a British working class family and has developed a sense of competition with boys since she was a child. When some galleries only choose to work with male artists, they are allowed to explore the identity of both genders. Why do men and women make such a difference? How to resolve this identity confrontation? Sarah Lucas used traditional male symbols such as Snooker, tobacco, and cars to invade the male space dominated by stereotypes. Beijing Diamonds (2019) is a work she creates at the Red Brick Art Museum as she destroys an old Volvo car with a hammer and violently devastates male symbols with seemingly masculine power. A series of self-portrait photographs created by Sarah Lucas in the 1990s, with a neutral dress, provocative male identity, like Eating a Banana (1990) is one of a series of photographs taken by Sarah Lucas’ former boyfriend in the 1990s. In the photo, Sarah Lucas wore a black leather jacket and ate bananas. It seems that she made eye contact with the viewer, this series of masculine actions, eventually produced a less comfortable sense of confrontation, once again breaking the male stereotype. Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003) is a huge, sacred icon of Jesus hanging in the middle of the St. George’s Cross in the Union Jack and it is intertwined with religion, country, smoking, death, etc. The image of Jesus in male identity is once again subverted.

Humorous Subversion from Feminismto Social Context

Sarah Lucas’ early works are full of feminist expressions, covering topics such as discrimination, stereotypes, materialization (especially about the materialization of sex), body, oppression and patriarchy. Sara Lucas was born in the United Kingdom under the conservative consciousness of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. During her time at Goldsmiths, she was no longer satisfied with her sculptures created by the minimalist influence at that time. Inspired by feminist literature, pornography and sexuality, she turned to cheap materials that were closely related and available everywhere. Linda Nochlin, a famous feminist art historian, once commented on Lucas’ work that the ambiguity of gender identity and the vulgarity in modern pop characterization is what Sarah Lucas explores, with shocking ways, her work has inspired the public to explore the structure of the relations of gender rights, both personal and social. When this structure is introduced from the individual level to the social level, it will be passed on to the subversion of the other contexts of social opposition. Sarah Lucas’ work moves from “feminism” to a humorous subversion of a “social context” with her unique humor and wisdom, transforming confrontation into positive thinking and responses.

Sarah Lucas’ artistic creation is full of Feminism. On the opening day of the exhibition, she started the performance and installation work One Thousand Eggs: For Women (2019), inviting women and men dressed in women’s clothing to throw eggs at the white wall. As an expression of fertility, eggs are violently destroyed on the wall, similar to the works of interactive games, and produce a relaxed comedy effect. Throwing eggs is a denial of the results of fertility, highlighting catharsis and release, no matter where the pressure comes from, but it is triggered by feminist works. Penetralia series was created in 2008. This is the new perception of Sarah Lucas from the city to the country. She found the meteorite in the countryside near her home in Suffolk, adding untreated wood, but still in the form of male reproductive organs. From the expression of feminism, she shows her concern about the mysterious objects similar to the ancient totems. This series of works marks the beginning of a mysticism in the works of Sarah Lucas.

In the latest works of Sarah Lucas, some of the early core concepts are used as the traction of her new ideas, from the early “single, straightforward, rough, joking” way to new visual expressions with “diversity, exquisiteness, humor, art history”. Floppy Toilet Duhr (2017) is made into a toilet with a resin similar to yellow as urine. The transparent material is elegant and detailed, but it is opposite to the dirty features of the toilet itself. There were also toilets in the early works of Sarah Lucas, but they were all filthy. The current work uses a new visual expression, subverting Fountain (1917) of Marcel Duchamp from the history of art. The urinal corresponds to the male, the toilet corresponds to the female, and the humorous correspondence is also made to pay tribute to Duchamp. Exacto (2018) uses a number of fluorescent tubes to pass through a red swivel chair. The slender lights involuntarily associate Dan Flavin’s minimalist lighting installation fixtures with a destructive combination of neatly illuminated tubes. From the perspective of Sarah Lucas, the fluorescent tube symbolizes the male penis, and the red swivel chair undoubtedly refers to the female body. The highly metaphorical installation is violently displayed among everyday objects, allowing viewers to think about the similar structural relationship from the gender context to the social context.

Is the Chinese audience ready to confront the cultural impact of Sarah Lucas? Curator Yan Shijie gave a positive answer. Looking back at the art activities of YBAs group that took place in the UK 30 years ago and the current Chinese art ecology. Sarah Lucas’ solo exhibition in China brings us a sense of visual release. Although the expression of sexuality is not a taboo topic for us, in the face of the creative vitality of Sarah Lucas even in the age when these works were created, we can still feel impressed by the creative courage of YBAs.

Text by Lin Lu, translated by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo Courtesy of the Organizer and Lin Lu


1. Shao Yiyang, ‘yBa and Post-Avant-garde―Discussion on Western Contemporary Visual Culture from the Perspective of British Youth Art Phenomenon’. Art Research, 2005(01).

2. Jonathan Fineberg, art since 1940, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2014

3. Matthew Collings, Sarah Lucas, London: Tate Publishing Ltd, 2002-01