Interview: Sarah Lucas on her shocking artwork

Concrete Void (destroyed car), New Religion (coffin) and Fighting Fire With Fire 20 Pack (backdrop). Picture: Contributed
Concrete Void (destroyed car), New Religion (coffin) and Fighting Fire With Fire 20 Pack (backdrop). Picture: Contributed
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Sarah Lucas explains to Susan Mansfield why size matters when it comes to her shocking artwork – and why she’s happy to go out on a limb

WHEN you walk into Sarah Lucas’s exhibition at Tramway in Glasgow, the first thing you see is a giant sculpture of a human arm. You can’t miss it, it’s 6.5 metres long. And if the position of the hand isn’t suggestive enough, a creaky pulley mechanism is moving the whole thing up and down. If that’s still too subtle, the clue’s in the title, it’s called Wanking Arm.

Sarah Lucas. Picture: Contributed

Sarah Lucas. Picture: Contributed

Lucas doesn’t bother with subtle. Where another artist might go for suggestion or innuendo, she just makes a sculpture of a penis five feet long. If you look past the arm, your eye lands on a colour photograph of a man (Lucas’s ex-boyfriend, artist Gary Hume), covering his modesty with a piece of meat and two veg.

Lucas came to prominence in the group of Young British Artists who seized the spotlight at the turn of the 1990s. She graduated from Goldsmiths in 1987, and showed with Hume, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the others in Freeze and Sensation. Defiant, and tomboyish, she was the wildest wild child of the YBAs. Her work – sculptures made from toilets, cigarette ends, a self-portrait with fried eggs over her breasts – was rude, in-your-face, easy to sensationalise.

Now she’s in her early fifties, though in her jeans and big boots she doesn’t look very different from the defiant, sulky young woman who stares down from her 1997 self portrait Fighting Fire With Fire x 20 pack, fag in mouth, oozing attitude. (She still smokes a lot, which, ironically, looks more rebellious now than it did 20 years ago.) Recent retrospectives at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds have prompted in-depth evaluations of her work by critics, and resulted in widespread praise. She has a sculptor’s intuitive grasp of space, forms, materials: take the concrete Zeppelin floating above our heads in Tramway, effortless playing with ideas of weight and substance.

She does, though, have an aura of celebrity about her. Interviews with her are rare and to secure one many hoops must be jumped through. We were warned that, despite all the ballsy defiance, she is “painfully shy”. But when she talks, she does so thoughtfully and directly, free of the mumbo-jumbo which dogs the art world.

This show is another retrospective, with work spanning the past 20 years, but it is different from the others. “I haven’t really made many big sculptures,” she says. “Mostly when I have made one it’s been because I had a big show in the offing and felt I needed something to pin down the space and arrange the other things around. It’s the first time I’ve put a lot of them in one space – the scale of Tramway demanded it.”

So what does scale do? What’s the difference between making a lifesize cast of a penis and making an enormous one? “It makes a different impression on a room, which is one consideration. Actually, I think life-size is ruder. Then again, I think it’s a big surprise to see giant penises – to see any penises, really, which is weird. We see plenty of tits and bums. The penis is a powerful taboo. What does that mean?”

Walking through her exhibition is about being made to confront one’s taboos. Seats are placed around the show, inviting us to take time, look some more. The longer we look, the more self-conscious we become. During my visit, senior school pupils were clustering in nervous bunches trying not to giggle. A couple with a young child were wisely steering towards the crushed cars. None of us were comfortable, but surely that’s the point.

“I don’t tend to preach in my work, it’s more about having a look around at what’s going on,” she says. “Very surprising when you open your eyes.” And she’s right, what a strange world we inhabit, with our mixed up attitudes to the body, sexualised images on the one hand, prudishness on the other. The way innocent words become innuendos, and the giant sculptures of marrows make us want to snigger. All this, Lucas knows.

Yes, she says, she is subverting gender stereotypes, reclaiming images of the body with a female gaze. But she doesn’t need to tell us this. The cleverness of her work lies partly in its clarity. “To a certain extent the audience assumes my feminism – which is not to say it’s not there. I’m aware of this and so is the work, and so is the viewer when confronted with the work. This gives rise to a self-conscious feeling, the moment of realisation – that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Being in “retrospective mode” has made her thoughtful. “It’s great fun seeing all these things again, they’re old friends, but it’s also melancholy, which perhaps I am. To me each work is a character, someone I know. When I know who they are I know they’re finished.”

When she talks about the giant arm, for example, it is always as “him”. The arm was made as part of a collaboration with dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, for his show Before And After: The Fall. On stage, it moved up and down over a standing dancer. It might have been Clark’s idea, she says. What she remembers most were the challenges of touring. “Getting the show speedily on and off the various stages was a nail-biting experience – especially with the massive arm in tow, he really wasn’t easy. There were times when I was embarrassed, and we had trouble getting him to work properly. I began to feel he was a bit of a liability, that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’m very fond of him now though.”

She says she tends to make work “casually and fast”, almost as if it works best when she’s not thinking too much about it. “I’m generally thinking that if it looks promising I can do it again properly later on – this never happens.” She follows her instincts. When she found a bag of old tights in a shed, she started using them to make “nuds”, the lumpen sculptures made from stuffed tights which suggest the female body in all its imperfection and fragility.

“As a young artist I felt that in making art I could be objective, more objective than I could in life,” she says. “And it’s true that you can have a proper look at something once it has some material reality. But I also equated this with being impersonal, in the sense of not being narrative or autobiographical. Looking at it all now it seems highly personal and more autobiographical than I thought – lots of Freudian slips.”

Has maturity brought a surer sense of what she wants to do as an artist? “If I was talking to students I’d say it’s always about the kind of artist you want to be – perhaps even the kind of person you want to be. In a sense you wear your own work. Looking back I can see a coherence that wasn’t visible when I was looking into the future. Some works which seemed quite out on a limb at the time are now perfectly comfortable – that would include the big wanker. My maxim would be, ‘Do what you like’.” She pauses. “It’s not always easy to know what that is though.” n

Sarah Lucas is at Tramway, Glasgow, until 16 March