Sex, Death, and Sarah Lucas:
a short review of an exhibition’s preview.
Among the words most commonly used to describe Sarah Lucas’s practice is, probably, ‘shock’. Indeed, on attending the opening of the artist’s retrospective at the Tramway last week, shock was my initial reaction too – the problem is, I wasn’t really shocked for the expected reasons.
Lucas (b. 1962) is an artist who, emerging as one of the key figures of the Young British Artists group, gained significance in the 1990s and is now well known for critiquing many of the stereotypes around gender and sexuality through her provocative representations of the body. Yet, surrounded as my friends and I were by phallic representations, I did not once think of sex, of “masculine clichés,” or of the issue of cultural stereotyping. What was it then that shocked me? It was precisely the inability to be shocked, my very lack of feeling.
One way to explain this response would be to acknowledge that we are today experiencing a cultural moment very different from that of Lucas’s emergence, so sexual images cannot be as shocking. However, it seems to me that to argue this would be to enter the limitless conversation on whether problems such as sexism are indeed now resolved, of whether women and men are now treated as equals, and the list goes on. What is more, it was not that those who attended the opening (including myself) did not appear touched by the artist’s themes that I thought was problematic, but that we were actually enjoying ourselves. In light of this, Lucas’s gigantic masturbating hand (the first thing to catch your eye as you enter the gallery), endlessly moving up and down as it was, appeared to me to speak not about sex or masculinity, but of the situation of contemporary art; rather than a comment on wanking, it struck me as itself an artwank.
As Robert Heinlein noted in his Stranger in a Strange Land, more like love than like masturbation, art is an experience which prescribes two positions, the artist and the perceiver, and it is through the communication of the two that artworks have a life. In much of today’s art-viewing, however, engaging is of secondary importance; simply by being close to the art of some “known” artist, us visitors get to feel significant, complicated, intellectual – and nowhere is this self-pleasuring more apparent, than when a group of ‘artsy’ people stand drinking wine next to Lucas’s very blunt and very mastrurbating hand. So, although one could say that I am, here, focusing on the ‘sex’ part of the exhibition – for there was also a ‘death’ part, the two themes being separated by a diagonal wall in the middle of the gallery space – the way I see it, the two are not in juxtaposition. In point of fact, take away the pleasure and masturbation becomes all about death; it is no longer (pro)creative, it hints at nothingness.
To conclude, what I am trying to say is not that Lucas’s art is not about what it depicts but rather that, in her cynical approach, the artist can be seen at Tramway to also speak of the art world’s own exhaustion, and of its inability to give back what it takes from art.
Sarah Lucas’ retrospective is running at Tramway until 16 March 2014