Sarah Lucas is shoving a banana in her mouth.
She half-winks, smiles, suggestively looks over from the corner of her eye – and then the whole thing disappears.
Alright, she’s not standing before me giving head to a piece of fruit. Rather, Lucas’s Eating a Banana – a series of black and white self-portraits shot in 1990 by then-boyfriend and fellow YBA Gary Hume – are plastered over the massive walls of the Tate Britain as part of her major retrospective, Happy Gas.
As visitors walk around these erotic sculptures – some old, some new – presented in the grand second room of the exhibition, Lucas’ eyes follow, god-like, as we check out spread-out arse cheeks, legs akimbo and cheap stilettos that make up some of the 60-year-old’s bawdy works.
For all its sexuality, this isn’t a lesson in the art of seduction. This is Sarah Lucas taking the piss out of you, out of me, out of men, out of the Establishment. After graduating from Goldsmiths University in 1987 and, in 1988, taking part in the now-legendary Damien Hirst-orchestrated Freeze exhibition in a disused warehouse in London Docklands, Lucas specialised in work throughout the 1990s and ’00s that was a provocative subversion of sex, class and gender roles.
But for all its politics, the Londoner’s work has never felt like a lecture. Instead, she addresses misogyny with sharp wit, pop culture and work that young people can understand at face value. In Pairfect Match (1992), a double-page spread of women’s heads on one side and zoomed-in tits on the other, is part of a competition in the Daily Sport: “Fit the faces to the bods and win a cash prize”.
In Five Lists (1991), she lists brutal profanities used to insult women: “battleaxe”, “bitch”, “slag”, “witch”. Perhaps one of her most recognisable works, Au Natural (1994), reduces a male and female couple to a pair of melons and a bucket, and a cucumber and two oranges laid onto a dirty mattress. This is Lucas at her sardonic best.
Critics have long tried to figure out why she would represent a pair of tits with two fried eggs, or a fanny with a doner (Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992). Or why many of her sculptures are of a bog. As with her controversial peers from the Young British Artists movement – Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marcus Harvey – some more traditionally-minded folks have questioned whether it’s even art at all.
Perhaps that’s why she once told a journalist, while walking around an exhibition, that she doesn’t like talking about art.
“In a way, I don’t think it really should be talked about as much,” Lucas says now, sitting, legs crossed, on a bench in a garden opposite Tate Britain. The interview was supposed to take place in a private room somewhere in the gallery. But a few minutes before we meet, the location is changed. Lucas, a heavy smoker who apologises for her raspy voice, brings out a small brass tin and rolls up a cigarette using liquorice Rizla.
“I certainly talk about it spontaneously when thoughts come up,” she continues. “But it’s quite difficult to dredge it up [after] being asked such meaningful questions that don’t have one answer.”
Lucas has always had a reputation for being the most rock’n’roll of the YBAs: hard drinking, smoking, partying. But three decades on she lives in a small Suffolk village. She’s retaining her youth, though, wearing pink and black stripy socks, a pink hoodie and tie-dye skinny jeans. She ends most of her sentences with a throaty laugh – even when we’re talking about serious stuff like the wealth divide, greed and the government’s terrible handling of, well, just about everything in the past two years.
Humour has always been Lucas’s way of getting her point across. Even the show’s title conjures up a psychedelic miracle cure for the blues. Or, you know, nitrous oxide.
“I laughed my head off when I heard someone on the telly say ‘happy gas’. I was watching some old black and white film, fuck knows what it was about. I think this guy was a doctor and he said ‘happy gas!’ about [a patient],” Lucas says. “That made me laugh, and that’s why I chose it as the title.”
Then, the day after the exhibition was announced, headlines broke about nitrous oxide being banned. “It was nothing to do with that – it really wasn’t. I thought: ‘Oh no, now I’m gonna get that pinned on me!’”
Lucas talks with candour, warm and matey ease as she puffs on a roll-up, like a regular down the local. She’s so far from being a poncey artist that standing in front of one of her works in Happy Gas, trying to work out the deeper meaning, feels as though you’re missing the point entirely. The toilet is a recurring motif: in a stone sculpture in Cnut; lit up in neon red with a cock fashioned out of a cigar and two walnuts in Inferno; and, when she’s at her most vulnerable, sat on a toilet wearing nothing but a T‑shirt, holding a cigarette for comfort in the self-portrait Human Toilet Revisited (1998).
Even now, over two decades on from the portrait being taken, there’s shock value in it. What could be more personal than having a shit?
“It’s just the way convention works, and it works to keep all these taboos going, which is just a form of control really, isn’t it? So in that sense, I suppose you could say they’re upsetting ‘something’. We don’t want to be exposed. What’s so embarrassing about going to the toilet? It’s that we only do it in private.”
Lucas has had no problem exposing parts of herself. Like her peer Tracey Emin, with whom she opened a short-lived Brick Lane shop (simply called The Shop) in 1992, Lucas has always confronted our fears and desires – what makes us tick, what makes us horny, the violence of language against women, the oddities of our bodies, our bulges, warts and all. She’s cool, crass, charismatic. And, as can be attested by 40-odd years of making art that has us hard-nosed Brits laugh out loud, she’s pretty fearless, too.
“That’s one of the slight reliefs of getting to 60: you slightly stop worrying about stuff as much. Obviously one always does care – it’s not particularly pleasant deteriorating, by the way,” she adds, candidly. “But I do tell myself to stop being so bothered about those things now.”
“I still go to [raves] occasionally, and I still go to parties,” she says. “I can’t remember the last one I went to, though… Probably one of mine!”
Head down to Sarah Lucas’ wickedly good retrospective, Happy Gas, now showing at Tate Britain ’til 14th January. Tickets from £16
Main image credit: Sarah Lucas, Got A Salmon On #1, 1997. © Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.