There’s an infinity of “stuff”. How to invest any of it with meaning? This is the artist’s driving question in “Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas,” a major survey of her works at Tate Britain in London. Lucas rose to prominence as part of the Young British Artists, which included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, a group whose youthful rebelliousness has endured as part of their artistic image even as their works have entered the contemporary canon.
Meaning and stuff are Lucas’ playthings in “Happy Gas,” a survey devised in close dialogue with the artist and presented entirely in her own voice. Stripped of the usual curatorial paratexts and accompanied only by Lucas’ brief narration, this is an exhibition built on feeling, not context, as a source of meaning.
The survey consists of four rooms and 75 works, although it never feels crowded—if anything, the spaciousness occasionally gives way to sparseness. It’s interesting to have almost nothing to read when walking through an exhibition, a decision from the artist and the Tate that encourages a more direct interaction with the works.
We’re quickly acquainted with Lucas’ visual language and favorite objects in the early rooms: chairs, breasts, penises, vaginas, burnt or damaged furniture, cigarettes, toilets, bananas and the Bunnies, headless twisting female bodies made primarily from stuffed hosiery. It’s a style that has endured throughout her career: the same motifs and the same ideas reoccur all the way from the late 90s to the present. Presented in a non-chronological format, this is not a survey of works in the traditional sense. There is no particular narrative or progression here. She has been making her headless Bunnies since 1997, and most of them are here, in one long room, with little to differentiate between them.
The only figure with a head in the show is Lucas herself, who appears in every single room in photographic self-portraits that are either framed, like Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996), or blown up to replace the gallery’s usual whitewashed walls. Historical context or explanatory notes are replaced by the gaze of the artist herself, looking down on her own work from the vantage point of the walls of one of Britain’s most prestigious art museums.
Found objects are commonly ridiculed in modern art museums (the words, “I could have made this,” haunt every modern art exhibit in the world) but Lucas’ ever-present eyes remind us that in selecting these objects, she is drawing attention to certain material aspects of the world and curating an experience that is exclusively her own. The art critic Olivia Laing once said that Lucas’ work boils down the subjective bodily experience of being a woman into a three-dimensional sculpture, and here it is certainly the body that Lucas creates or implies via every object.
But why some objects are more worthy of attention than others is not always clear. Amidst an animatronic masturbation chair, a pair of breasts and a penis made from cigarettes and the burnt-out halves of a Jaguar (apparently representing the lungs of a smoker), there are two dominant species in Lucas’ ecosystem: the Bunnies, and another set of lower bodies. The latter are cast in plaster from the real bodies of Lucas’ friends—or muses as she refers to them on one placard. In the orifices of these bisected nudes, Lucas has stuck a nonchalant cigarette.
The word “perverse” is frequently used when describing Lucas’ work. In her own sparse commentary of the exhibition she writes that “vaginas seem to shock people more than a penis,” but the plaster vulvas here feel no more rebellious or original than a teenager’s graffiti of a phallus on a school building. If the intention is to shock—and it’s difficult to see the scatological cigarettes as much more than that—some of these works are lacking. It’s partly modern contexts: in a world where Urban Outfitters now sells breast-bedecked bedsheets and pussy hats can be purchased on eBay for $15.54 + tax, the mere presence of sexual organs is no longer enough to deliver impact.
More generative are Lucas’s blown-up framed tabloids, reminding us of a not-particularly-bygone era where women could open the most popular newspapers in the country and be greeted with a “match the babe to her boobs” quiz. And while the louche, smoking lower bodies in the final room appear more relaxed than their Bunny sisters, it’s the latter that feels closest to an actual bodily experience—in this case, shame, objectification and anxiety. The Bunnies, displayed here mostly in one room, seem to be curling in on themselves, a parody of long limbs and slim waists which creates a kind of sexual Uncanny Valley—an over-exaggeration of sexiness that, in surpassing and parodying the real thing, elicits revulsion. The effect is a subversion of, or a kind of jeering at, the messages and bodies in the tabloids. The smoking vaginas are not much more than what they appear: a brief, single-layer joke.
“Happy Gas” is billed as a survey, and it provides a sweeping exploration and presentation of Lucas’ work to date, stretching from the deliberately silly Old Couple (1997) with its dildo and false teeth, all the way to the fresh Bunnies created this year. It’s hard to get a sense of Lucas’ development as an artist, but perhaps that’s an accurate representation of her work. Occasionally more obvious than interesting, nonetheless it’s Lucas’ best “stuff” that evokes—meaningfully—the pure weirdness of having a body.
“Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas” is on view at Tate Britain in London through January 14, 2024.