Since emerging in the 1990s as part of the hard-partying Young British Artists, Sarah Lucas has been characterised by her brash humour and her unflinching ability to overturn gender stereotypes. Today one of the world’s most celebrated and influential female artists, Lucas is showing her work at CFA until February 27.
In the 1990s you were known for your hedonism. Now you’ve moved to the countryside and live in a big house in a sleepy coastal town. Do you miss those decadent London days?
I don’t live in a big house in a coastal town – I live in a cottage surrounded by intensively farmed fields. When I pitched up here 20 years ago, I found a party going on and I just glided into it. It certainly wasn’t sleepy at all. I do miss the decadent days sometimes, but I’m too old to keep up that pace now. Generally I do get to London a fair bit, I dip into it. I haven’t since the pandemic started though.
You’ve had a whirlwind five years, representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and then having your first American retrospective in 2018. What has been the highlight for you?
It’s all been great and I didn’t stop to think about it much. I liked making these very different exhibitions in very different museums using a lot of the same stuff. I did the New Museum in New York in 2018, followed by the Hammer in L.A. in 2019 and culminating in a show at the Red Brick Museum in Beijing in 2019. And that was amazing, I’d never been to China before and I had more space than ever. That was a real eye-opener for me, to see works of mine, some of them quite early pieces, in such an environment. It radically shifted the impression I’d had that my work is somehow domestic.
Is there a part of you that thrives on deadlines and enjoys being put under stress?
A deadline is certainly galvanising. I’m often working on the hop and have to accept the available materials and get on and make something. A sense of humour is also key in these situations. I’m usually with my partner, Julian Simmons, and often have friends helping. The camaraderie combined with the limitations of materials, space and available time conspire to create a kind of spirit for each particular enterprise.
I read this is the first time you got your own studio. Is that really true?
Yes. I have had studios with other friends or boyfriends over the years but I always seemed to be the person not using them and watching them get filled up with other people’s stuff! I make a lot of things on the hop. Matthew Barney lent me his studio to make the car piece I showed at the New Museum in New York. It was a great way to hang out with him and his crew and listen to American music all day. I love the immersion that comes with working with people in other places. The opposite of tourism.
Watching Nancy Pelosi speaking after the storming of the Capitol, I noticed that she had on very precarious stiletto heels…
Would you say that themes you’ve engaged with since the start of your career – the prevalence of the male gaze and the social expectations thrust on women – have become increasingly important?
Things seem on a very conservative trend now, fascistic even. I was watching Nancy Pelosi speaking after the storming of the Capitol by right-wing fanatics. She was making a very serious speech about the threat to democracy, looking very pale and shaken, and I noticed that she had on very precarious stiletto heels beneath her trouser suit. This seems to be a necessary get-up for women to be taken seriously in public life.
They’re allowed to talk tough and wear power suits but are inevitably tottering around in implausible heels. What does that tell us? Is it an ugly and hateful thing for women to look anything other than ‘feminine’?
You couldn’t come to your latest exhibition because of the travel restrictions. How comfortable are you with someone else setting up your works?
Generally, I see the installation of an exhibition as the completion of the work. The moment when things come together into their true meaning. So it’s weird not to be around for that part. In the case of Berlin, I’ve worked with CFA for years so I’d say we have a fair understanding of each other. On another hand, I’m enjoying not travelling. It’s a new thing, staying put.
There is a real playfulness with your new work but also something unsettling, like DICK ‘EAD with its enormous phallus – do you feel a pressure to keep upping the levels of shock?
Well, it still surprises me how squeamish people are about the penis – in public anyway. Quite a different attitude than the one towards tits. There’s no substitute for genitalia in terms of meaningfulness and a bit of edge. As Freud and Andrea Dworkin and many others have found, sex is in everything.
Your new works are made from bronze. It’s a long way from the food, toilets even mattresses you had in the 1990s.
At one time it was a necessity to make things on the cheap. It wasn’t done out of prejudice towards any particular material. Even in the early days I made a few things that were cast and a couple of things in 18 carat gold. Materials have meaning as well as value.
Is it dizzying to have all these materials and resources now at your fingertips?
To make art is to try and make something perfect in its own terms. Something that can only be that way. That wouldn’t be improved by turning it into something else. Of course, the casting process is just that. Turning something into something else. That’s the problem it presents. And life itself is like that, riddled with contradictions.
Sarah Lucas’ Hurricane Doris, through Feb 27, CFA