Sarah Lucas, ZEN LOVESONG, 2023, GODDESS, 2022, and Eating a Banana, 1990. Installation view at Tate Britain, courtesy Tate

Forever stuck in the nineties

Sarah Lucas and the sexual revolution that wasn’t

Artillery Row On Art

It’s not often that a retrospective of an artist’s work, an event that is by necessity decades in the making, arrives with nearly perfect timing. Nearly, because Sarah Lucas’ Happy Gas opened at Tate Britain just as media commentators concluded their revisionist discussions of the culture that gave birth to Russell Brand at the turn of the millennium. That’s a pity because they could have looked to Lucas — a key member of the generation of Young British Artists that once ushered a wave of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll into Britain’s art institutions — for proof that even our very recent history of sexuality is full of misinterpretations, misrememberings and misquotations.

Sex is everything, but pornography is bad, except when they aren’t

One of the first works that greets visitors to Happy Gas is a series of enormous photocopies of the salacious pages of Sunday Sport from the early 1990s, with headlines like “Fat, Forty, Fabulous” and photographs to match. These look like relics of a bygone era of “readers’ wives” or Page 3, in which we once objectified women as though they were asking for it. It’s easy to forget that Page 3 ran until 2013, a whole decade closer to today than to when Lucas embodied Andrea Dworkin’s antipornography manifesto. Contrasting with the even larger, wallpaper reproductions of Got a Salmon On (Lucas’ self-portraits with dead fish and innuendo titles next to which the newspaper works appear), they set the tone for the show: sex is everything, but pornography is bad, except when they aren’t.

The 1997 exhibition Sensation, orchestrated by the collector and adman Charles Saatchi, defined the sexual politics of the YBAs. It featured works by the likes of Jakes and Dinos Chapman and Marcus Harvey that caused outrage and sparked protests. In the mythology of this show, Lucas’ work is remembered as “sexually explicit”. In truth, it was anything but. Lucas took part with a sculpture that consisted of a dirty mattress and a pair of melons plus a bucket on one side and a cucumber with two oranges on the other: a metaphor so unnecessary that it’s staggering that the object was actually made. The show was nonetheless a PR triumph, and the legend of Sarah Lucas, the feminist rebel, was born.

In the Tate exhibition, sculptures from the nineties set out the concerns that have driven Lucas for over three decades: puerile innuendo and sexual fetish. There’s a pair of chairs on which The Old Couple linger only as a wax dildo and a pair of false teeth. Wanker, a motorised mannequin arm, “helps out” another invisible figure. Someone else, also missing, smokes a cigarette with their head in a wooden box. These works are intentionally ridiculous. As though to demand that we also take them seriously, Lucas reproduces a whole dictionary of epithets used to describe women (“battleaxe”), men (“shagger”), homosexuals (“arse bandit”) and bodily functions (“skid”), which are sometimes funny, sometimes derogatory and occasionally menacing. When Lucas’ signature Bunnies appear — sculptures of female bodies fashioned out of stuffed tights slung over chairs, in postures signalling sexual availability — it’s harder to simply laugh them off.

What happened in this era to make euphemism the choice trope for Lucas? In the popular imagination, the 1990s were a reaction to decades of chintz and Thatcherite repression. This is only partly true. The sexual austerity of the eighties is as ahistorical as the idea that the Victorians covered up piano legs to avoid inspiring uncontrollable desires. By another account, this British renaissance was the product of American cultural exports like MTV. Yet, one can hardly blame New Kids on the Block for Union Jack knickers. The simplest explanation might be that by 1990, neoliberal capital was ready to turn sex into a commodity. Before it did, it had to contend with the remnants of the British class system.

It’s the packet of cigarettes in the frame that raises eyebrows today

Because the visual arts in Britain were a latecomer to the orgy of commerce, Lucas and some of her YBA contemporaries avoided the extreme pressures that extracted Kate Moss from Croydon and turned her into a sex symbol for the cocaine-sniffing middle classes. Sure, Lucas thought about sex as much as anyone else did in the nineties, but thinking was as far as she got. When she photographed herself eating a banana for another series of wallpapers now installed at Tate, she looked neither sexy nor lecherous. The work instead relies for effect on the semiotic baggage of this image — for example, the unabashed 1973 video Consumer Art by the Polish artist Natalia LL. Even in her best-known self-portraits in which fried eggs cover her breasts, Lucas is fully clothed. It’s the packet of cigarettes in the frame that raises eyebrows today. This is sexuality without sex — or the other way around.

Is Lucas the epitome of unbridled female sexuality she’s held up to be, and will she go down in art history as Cool Britannia’s response to Carolee Schneemann and Valie Export? Unlikely. The nineties called for a different kind of feminism, though. Lucas’ refusal to go all-out for the lads, as the culture around her demanded, can only be admired. Today, Viz magazine’s brand of sexual humour (to which Lucas is the brand ambassador) carries no favour. She is more difficult to categorise than she was twenty years ago.

She has stuck with it nonetheless. There are dozens of Bunnies in the Tate show, many of them made in the last four years. The materials and context have evolved — some of the figures are cast in bronze and the variety of chairs around which they are draped could fill a coffee-table book — but the ideas are barely new. True, these women are now more characterful and less vulnerable, as one would expect of the work of an artist in her late fifties. Yet, because they are bound by an artistic lineage that includes not only Hans Bellmer’s dismembered dolls of the 1930s but Lucas’ own seminal oeuvre, it’s difficult not to read in them a dose of resignation and complacency. When the sexual realpolitik outside the gallery can’t decide whether to celebrate or fear sex, Lucas’ demand that we giggle at her toilet humour becomes wearisome.

Lucas is most sincere when she makes works about death. She obsesses with smoking and fire whenever she’s not thinking of sex. Already in the nineties, she began to make peculiar installations in which smoking both kills and saves lives. In a 2018 series of wallpaper portrait photographs, a cigarette is never far from her mouth. A burnt-out wreck of a Jaguar densely covered by cigarettes marks the exhibition’s finale. These are perverse mementos mori and guardian angels. Looking at them, the mind fills in a story of lung cancer and road deaths. Judging by a modest 2023 photograph of the now sixty-year-old Lucas posing in the idyll of the English countryside at harvest time, perhaps the most unaffected of all her works, the end won’t be nearly as dramatic.

Happy Gas by Sarah Lucas continues at Tate Britain until 14 January.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover