Culture Editor Carolina Vlachakou reviews “Happy Gas” Sarah Lucas’s brand new exhibition at TATE Britain.
Editor’s note: this article discusses pornography and nudity.
Today, TATE Britain welcomes the exhibition “Happy Gas” by renowned artist Sarah Lucas. Lucas rose to prominence through the Young British Artists art movement in the early 1990s. Having studied at Goldsmiths College from 1984 to 1987 and displayed her work as part of the legendary exhibition “Freeze”, curated by Damien Hirst in 1988, she has led a triumphant career. Celebrated for her provocative and refreshing takes on sex, mortality and the human body, Lucas communicates her views on gender and class through a very British lens. Her ever-evolving style and stirring taste are palpable throughout the exhibition “Happy Gas”, which features more than 75 works and spans over four decades.
In discussing the title of the exhibition, one of the curators shared that the show was originally going to be called “Sarah Lucas”, as TATE shows are often titled with the name of the artist. That was until Lucas stepped in and named the exhibition “Happy Gas”, referring to nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. This title pays homage to Lucas’s overall artistic presence on many different levels. Besides it being reminiscent of a tabloid headline and related to the eminent nitrous oxide ban, the joyous and sinister connotations of the gas are in alignment with Lucas’s creative character.
Whilst normally the entrance room, known as Gallery 61, is recognized for its grey walls and displays of prints and products inspired by the featured artist, this is not the case for this particular exhibition. As soon as you enter Gallery 61 you are greeted by the “Tits in Space” peach wallpaper, two sofa works and breezeblocks, immediately immersing the audience into the “Happy Gas” world. Entering the exhibition space, the art show flows between three rooms.
Chairs have been a regular object in Lucas’s works and stood as an important theme for this exhibition. The artist has been using chairs as a medium of her work since 1992, when The Old Couple, the first work you encounter in Room 1, was created. Loaded with meaning, these familiar and ubiquitous objects morph into human figures, with legs, arms and backs.
There is a strong intertwinement of autobiographical elements and objective reality in Lucas’s work, particularly in her use of chairs. In the Thematic texts by Dominique Heyse-Moore and Amy Emmerson Martin, the artist admits “I didn’t set out to be autobiographical really. […] Though now that I have a lot of works behind me, I can see that they inevitably tell a story, in their way”. The autobiographical element of her practice is evident in works like “Me (stool)” – a piece composed of a plaster set of naked glutes, with a cigarette inserted between them and a pair of legs climbing onto a bar stool.
Bodily structures, some made by kapok stuffed tights, others by bronze or plaster are laid on different types of chairs, tending to performative onanism in diverse positions, ranging from dejection to ecstasy. These lumpy figures, posed for the audiences to see, are caught in the midst of, arguably, one of the most private and vulnerable forms of human pleasure. In creating this sexual pursuit and blurring the line between the private and public sphere, Lucas as well as all the on-lookers inevitably inhabit the position of the voyeur. This exposure of impropriety and the forced role the viewers take is intended to elicit strong emotions, whether that be discomfort, guilt, jealousy, relatability or pleasure.
This phenomenon continues through her use of language. Language is a tool that Lucas utilizes in expressing the playfulness and humour behind her works. This is evident in the provocatively witty titles she allocates to each piece – for example, “Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous” is the title of one of the three photocopy-on-paper laid-on canvas art pieces she completed in 1990, inspired by her newfound interest in feminism, catalysed by Andrea Dworkin’s books “Intercourse” and “Pornography: Men Possessing Women”. This trio of works are all large tabloid works that feature pornographic images of women, sex lines and satyrical puns such as “All set for our breast quest?”.
Even though these pieces were completed over two decades ago, these works still manage to obtain the same shock value they did on their first exhibition. Viewing this hyper-sexual portrayal of women catered to male audiences continues to evoke the same guilt of accidentally finding a porno channel while zapping through channels as a child on your family television. A learned habit of propriety urges one to look away, but their grand size of 238.8 x 320.0 cm makes it impossible for one’s eyes to not land on them.
Toilets, a sandwich, bronze cats and Mumum, a cocoon-like sculpture composed of stuffed breast-shaped tights, are just a few of the works on display. A testimony to motherhood, femininity and sexuality, the artist explains, in the aforementioned thematic texts, that there simply is “no substitute for genitalia in terms of meaningfulness and a bit of edge”. Lucas’s oeuvre is a testament to its undeniable capacity to evoke a spectrum of emotions, regardless of one’s own volition.
The “Happy Gas” Exhibition will remain in TATE Britain until 14 January 2024. Become a Member of the Tate Collective and book your £5 ticket here.