Art

Artist Sarah Lucas on tits, making something out of nothing and 'living in quite terrible times'

Sarah Lucas on her triumphant career-spanning show Happy Gas. "When I got here, it was a bit full on – my giant mug everywhere!"

Artist Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas, photographed in 2023. Main image: Tate / Lucy Green

Sarah Lucas’s new career-spanning show at Tate Britain confirms the former Young British Artist (YBA) as one of the Great British artists of the era.

Happy Gas serves up Lucas’s unique brand of sex, cigs, class and gender politics with wit and skill. Playful, provocative, punctuated with humour and working-class London vernacular, Happy Gas sees Lucas command every inch of the space in four rooms at the Tate.

Lucas knows how to make an impact. She always has. The artist rose to prominence alongside her Goldsmiths College cohort of Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Fiona Rae and, later, Gillian Wearing, Sam Taylor-Wood and Mark Bollinger plus non-Goldsmiths comrades Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville and Gavin Turk.

Early group shows Freeze and East Country Yard Show, the former curated by Hirst, the latter by Lucas with Henry Bond, marked out the YBAs as a new wave of youthful, modern artists, happy to embrace both notoriety and commercialism.

Sarah Lucas's Bunny (1997).
Bunny 1997. Image: Sarah Lucas

In the intervening years, Sarah Lucas has established herself as one of the most compelling artists around – with huge solo exhibitions across the world showcasing iconic works including her Bunny series, in which tights and stockings are sculpted to evoke female nudes, mounted on and around chairs. Chair works old and new – the show features 16 brand new chair sculptures – form the centrepiece of Happy Gas.

“I wanted to tell the story from the beginning to now with mainly chairs,” Lucas says. “My main concern was to do a new show. Even though the work is from different eras, the show is a new show.”

We had planned to meet in the Grand Saloon within Tate Britain after seeing the exhibition just ahead of its public opening. But Lucas wants to smoke. And besides, it’s a bit grand for us in there. We park ourselves in front of her two giant concrete marrows, Kevin and Florian (2013) outside the gallery. The second we sit down, a digger starts creating merry hell on Millbank, so instead we hot foot it to the smoking hut in Millbank Gardens and begin.

Throughout the exhibition, works old and new are overseen by towering portraits of the artist. They cover every inch of the wall in the three of the four rooms – as though the artist who first challenged both the patriarchy and the art establishment in the late ‘80s and ‘90s is eager to ensure her work remains as provocative and startling. Does it feel like she is somehow communing with her younger self here?

“It was quite weird,” she says, a throaty laugh confirming that cigarettes are not just art supplies for Lucas, who uses them in many of her sculptures.

“When I first got here to hang the show, before the sculptures were here, it was just the pictures and it was a bit full on. My giant mug everywhere!

“The self-portraits, particularly …Banana, were in some of my earliest shows. And at the time no one knew who I was. I wasn’t focused on it being me – I just did it because I couldn’t afford anybody else to model. But because that got legs straight away, it did put me literally in the work right from the start. And I think people now sense me in the work even when there are no images of me.”

Despite being prolific, Sarah Lucas has a love-hate relationship with work itself – prioritising time away from her studio.

“Work is so overemphasised these days. Even for kids going to school. I never did any homework. I asked my mum about it once and she said, ‘I wouldn’t let you do any homework – you were there all week, I thought that was enough.’”

But for Happy Gas, Lucas is everywhere. Every image, every piece, and even every caption is hers and hers alone. “The first time I used a table I could visualise it as being a reclining nude,” says one of her notes, explaining her use of everyday furniture in her work.

Under Her Eye: Sarah Lucas’s 1991 Self Portrait Eating a Banana looms large over her new work. Image: Tate / Lucy Green

Lucas even takes over the foyer and giftshop, before the exhibition proper, at Happy Gas – covering the walls in a colourful peachy incarnation of her Tits In Space wallpaper.

“It is always a dreary space, and it is nice to show a couple of extra works,” she says. “And you have to pay to get into the exhibition, so at least there is something that is free.”

On entering the exhibition, we are immediately confronted with The Old Couple – a wax penis and false teeth, side by side on matching wooden chairs. It’s Lucas’s first chair work and still capable of shock and awe, three decades after its inception.

Why are bodies still so provocative?

“It really is a mystery,” says the artist. “I don’t know why. I suppose because there are still so many taboos. But isn’t it ridiculous?

“Another funny thing. All the things made with the tights – particularly the tits? If friends bring a baby round to my studio to say hello, they are drawn towards the tits like a magnet. It’s a natural response and I like to play with that.”

The eye is drawn away from the wax cock and false gnashers to 1999’s Wanker – a mechanical arm and fist raised atop two nondescript grey buckets, pounding up and down furiously above a sad-looking wooden chair. Not subtle. And not something these hallowed halls see every day.

“I don’t know if I was ever that fixated about being subversive,” Lucas says. “I like things to look good, that is my main concern.” Behind Wanker, the wall is plastered with a giant portrait, Got A Salmon On, featuring Lucas in 1991, holding a fish.

The second room is like a chair-sculpture garden. It features work in tights and stocking, as well as concrete and bronze – the hard and soft playfully juxtaposed – and is overlooked by the photo-series Eating a Banana (1991).

“The first room is the early stuff, and it does have that sleazy, slightly sordid feeling, which I was very focused on then. London was even shabbier then, somehow,” says Lucas.

“Then it is straight into the very recent work – but I think things do reflect the times they were made in, inevitably.

“I really wanted to mess around with the bronze thing. I wanted to be able to be as playful as I am in other materials. It is not a very spontaneous process, so we had to find new ways to be playful and I feel like I’m starting to get to grips with it now.

“And I have always thought one thing doesn’t have more value than another. It is quite relevant to The Big Issue – I remember talking about it in one of my earliest interviews. The point is you can make things out of anything. You don’t have to have fancy materials. You can make things out of things you find on the street and you can find ways to make that a powerful object. That is important – it is a freedom that anyone can have.”

This is perhaps best illustrated in Sod You Gits (1991) – a salacious Sunday Sport spread blown up to giant size – and Five Lists (1991), in which the artist collates and categorises swearwords.

“It is about seeing the significance of it. I love the cloud of ideas – it is somewhere I like to be. And I get a lot of amusement from it, and a lot of deep and meaningful thoughts about living. These days I just write lists on the back of envelopes and then chuck them out.”

The huge Sandwich (2004-20) and provocative chair sculpture DICK ’EAD (2018) that dominate the third room are overlooked by further Lucas portraits, Smoking (1998) and Self Portrait With Skull (1996).

The final room Sarah Lucas describes as “more apocalyptic”. A more recent portrait series, Red Sky, overlooks its centrepiece. This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven, 2018, is the wreckage of a burnt out car, split in two, seat ejected, covered in cigarettes.

“It reflects that we live in quite terrible times with the politics and the climate stuff and wars breaking out,” says Lucas.

The overall impact of seeing so much of Sarah Lucas’s work together, in this context, still feels startling. Sensational, even. In that sense, Happy Gas recalls how Sensation. The 1997 huge YBA group show at the Royal Academy was a dramatic way to gatecrash the artistic establishment.

The show sparked controversy, provoked discussion, raised profiles. Damien Hirst’s Away From The Flock (a sliced up sheep suspended in formaldehyde) and Marcus Harvey’s Myra (a huge portrait of serial killer Hindley created using children’s handprints) attracted the ire of more conservative commentators.

Sensation also broke box office receipts and introduced new audiences to both the latest British art and intimidating art arenas. It was the first exhibition I came to after moving to London the previous year, a cultural happening that felt vital, youthful, modern, relevant and, crucially, accessible.

“It was maybe a bit more of your generation than a lot of what goes on in museums,” Lucas says. “We were quite thrilled to be doing stuff like that. We were very excited most of the time in those days.

“It felt good to be part of a gang. I had just left college when Damien put Freeze together. We all used to share studios, we all went to everything – whatever contemporary shows were on, we all went. So it rolled along like that. 

“So many of us doing our own shows kept the whole thing buoyant. Then galleries sprang up to accommodate us, because there weren’t so many galleries then. It was very exciting – and there was a feeling at the time that the whole world was coming to us.”

The whole world has continued to flock to see the work of Lucas and her contemporaries. Happy Gas, with its playfully political interrogation of big themes around sex and class is compelling, creative and so carefully curated. Lucas is, she says, eager to find out what younger people make of her work.

“A lot of the time I don’t let myself think what a big deal it is, doing a show like this,” she says. “If I thought about it in advance it would make me nervous. I have a weird way of detaching myself from things, which I find quite useful. I stay in my own bubble.

“It helps keep my life how I want it to be. I don’t want my whole life to be public – moreso than when we were younger and craving the attention. And some people continue to love it.

“And I’ve never been making things just for an art audience because I didn’t grow up in an art audience. I’m well aware of people’s attitudes to art and the mystification of some of it. I don’t think art is just about selling things. The most important bit is having exhibitions that anybody can come to. A lot of people feel very intimidated going to commercial galleries but less so in public spaces.

“So I’m especially looking forward to hearing what younger people make of it. I’m a bit of an old fogey now so it’s nice to get a positive response from younger generations. Because art should make an emotional connection. It should provoke actual feelings.”

We end at the beginning. At Sarah Lucas’s roots on and around Holloway Road in North London. She talks with passion about continuing to represent her neighbourhood, still living nearby (“I’m not exactly yachting on the Med”, she says), and how her journey into art would be so much more difficult now.

“I left school at 16. I didn’t know anything about art college,” she says. “But I met someone who mentioned she was at St Martin’s and said I would like art college. I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life, so I started going to evening classes. I got a portfolio together. But I didn’t have great expectations – I certainly didn’t see this coming.

“We didn’t have to pay for our education, let alone have to borrow all that money back then. We got a small grant for living on and we could squat, so housing wasn’t so expensive. I don’t think as a society we are worse off than back then – so why can’t we afford it now? I’m convinced it thwarts a lot of people from fulfilling what they might do otherwise.

“But art is a fluid thing. It can reinvent itself in a new way. So I’m also convinced young people will still find a way.”

SARAH LUCAS – HAPPY GAS runs at Tate Britain until 14 January 2024

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