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19 February 2023

Sarah Lucas: “I didn’t want to spend my life angry”

The artist on feminism, the importance of humour, and being a Young British Artist at 60.

By Kate Mossman

Four men are pushing a yellow Triumph TR6 up two narrow planks to balance it on a small stack of building blocks. It is dicey work, with no one behind the steering wheel. Sarah Lucas stands in the crowd, in a gallery in Colchester, hugging herself as the stunt is accomplished. Her car is a kiss-off to the permanent exhibit next to it: two life-size automobile sculptures by Julian Opie, which take up most of the foyer. The gallery wouldn’t shift them for Lucas’s new show, “Big Women”, so she’s brought a car of her own. Two “bunnies” will sit in it – those intestinal assemblages of lumpy stockings; wry studies of female seduction and passivity that she began making in 1997. These days her bunnies feel like “her mates”. One will be draped on the bonnet like a model. The other will be in the driving seat.

“Cronyism, again,” Lucas mutters when introducing her show, a sumptuous collection of art by her and 24 female peers celebrating that they’re getting older. In 2017, at the age of 55, she went to Venice with the painter Kate Boxer, who also has work on display, to see a Damien Hirst show – the one with stuff dredged up from an imaginary shipwreck. Hirst thinks Lucas is the best artist of all the Young British Artists (YBAs), and still buys a lot of her stuff (“It’s bloody handy with Damien because he’s really good about lending it out”). In Venice, Boxer and Lucas would go for lunch as soon as the local restaurants opened, long before locals, uncork the wine and enjoy the endless, indiscriminate flirtation of Italian waiters – a contrast to the UK, where they felt increasingly invisible. On one long afternoon they sat outside the Gritti Palace, slowly befriending two gondoliers who passed them time and time again on an endless watery rotation. What a wonderful place Venice was to be a seniora, they thought. In that moment, the idea forBig Women”was born.

There’s only one thing more agonising than walking around an art show with the artist and trying to think of intelligent comments – and that’s walking around an art show with an artist looking at work by other artists. “I hate talking about art,” Lucas admits eventually. She shows me a giant black-and-white oil portrait by Maggi Hambling, of Hambling’s mother, with a swipe of pink paint on the lips. “She only put lipstick on it in case people thought it was a self-portrait,” Lucas says. “See: that’s the kind of thing I know about art.” She points to a portrait of the artist Sue Webster, pregnant in her fifties (“Some people love being pregnant, don’t they? I’ve never tried it”) and at Polly Morgan’s disturbing photos of skinned snakes – or are they eels? (“I love working with fish. Maybe I should wear one to the opening?”)

Uncomfortable as she is in front of her own work, Lucas cannot hide her amusement and affection. Yellow Chair Hair is a blonde wig attached to a velvet seat, viewed from behind. “There is a point where it’s all up for grabs, and I’m not very convinced by it,” she says. “And when I am convinced, it’s because it has started to become a character for me. When you make a whole show, the things start to form their characters in relation to each other – like you’re putting on a play. Then you know who they are.”

YBAs (left to right) Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst at a joint exhibition in 2004. Photo by PA Images

Twenty-five years on from the YBA movement, Lucas is still admired for her lightness of touch. She used sex to draw people in to her work, she recently said – to keep art open to “plebs like myself”. She was funny, but she was funny because she was clever: much of her work was barely “made”, just a couple of objects, perfectly arranged. Has she never wanted assistants, like Hirst, to help her churn out more bunnies? “If I can’t be bothered to make ’em, I wouldn’t want someone else to make ’em,” she says. “And I don’t know where I’m going with it until I’ve done it, so it’s not like I can tell someone else how to do it.” Unlike her former friend Tracey Emin, she does not try to draw.

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Lucas, now 60, talks soft and fast in a velveteen smokers’ tone that, in ten years, will be as deep as Dot Cotton’s. She refers to herself as more or less an alcoholic. She isn’t mad about being interviewed, but she’s willing and thinks on the spot. My tape recording features the regular slice-slice-slice of a steel cigarette lighter – not because she’s chaining it, but because her rollies keep going out as she talks. In recent years she’s made many plaster casts of the penis of her partner, the artist Julian Simmons. She found a bit of bark in her Suffolk garden that looked like a penis, so she made a cast of that too (Tree Nob, 2010).

[See also: An unmissable view of Vermeer’s secret worlds]

Before I met her, I thought how wonderful it must be to inhabit a world where the penis plays such a huge role in your everyday thought process – is, in fact, your job. There must also be humour in executing more laborious ideas, like the time she encrusted an entire toilet with cigarettes for 1998’s Nature Abhors a Vacuum. Does humour motivate her?

“It does, but it’s a slippery thing, isn’t it? ’Cause why are things funny? Somewhere between sense and not making sense, what can be said and what can’t? And things you don’t like can be turned around…” Like many women of her generation, getting on with life in an atmosphere of casual misogyny, Lucas used humour to “knock into the invisible bits around people, the bits that they’re not even aware of themselves”.

“When I first started to get a reputation for being a feminist artist, I remember feeling quite strongly that I don’t want to spend my whole life being angry,” she adds. “It could make you bloody miserable.”

While Emin has bought buildings in Margate for an art school and studios, Lucas and friends have taken over the old Conservative club in Framlingham, Suffolk, for local shows. She inhabits a nearby farmhouse once owned by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, though she still has a house in Dalston, east London. Their work may go for astronomical prices –and Lucas has a major retrospective coming to the Tate Britain this autumn – but both women still bear the traces of their slacker generation: you might arrive for an interview to find Emin in bed, while Lucas asserts her own desire to do as little as possible with less of a performance. “It really annoys me how artists bang on about how much they always wanted to be an artist,” she says. “What, from the age of five? What the f**k does that mean?” After the busy opening of her show, she will sit in the kitchen, put on a good wash, and read for a day. “The nice thing about reading compared to watching telly is there’s loads of room in it for your own thoughts.”

Art, Lucas says, is about what kind of life you want: “It’s up for grabs.” She was raised in a housing estate on Camden Road, north London, by a milkman and a cleaner, and is one of four children. She tells me, as we examine the bricks supporting her car, that she’d pick chewing gum off the street as a child, recalling its gritty texture on her teeth with some delight. Her parents were tinkerers – they could make things: cabinets, dolls, toys – but they weren’t big on ambition. She left school without O-levels and was completely unprepared for the world of work – not that it mattered long-term.

“My aim, from when I was very young, has been for my time to be my own,” she says. “A lot of people I’m around have a really strong work ethic and I don’t. What I really want to do is just what I like doing, whatever that might be. The only thing is, you’ve got to not want too many things, because if you don’t want too many things you don’t have to do so much work.”

On her estate, Lucas ran with boys. At 16 she began to attend night classes at the Working Men’s College in Mornington Crescent, the oldest surviving adult education centre in Europe, which she loved for its bar and cheap canteen. She studied fine art alongside Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths, University of London, and was still a student when he and others organised the “Freeze” show, the first airing of work by the people who’d become the YBAs.

[See also: Tracey Emin interview: “When I die, there could be riots”]

She suffered from rage and “ego problems” when she saw her male friends courted by galleries upon graduation, but says today that elements of her work made her look angrier than she was. In her well-loved 1996 photograph Self-Portrait with Two Fried Eggs – the eggs are positioned sunny-side up on her breasts – she resembles Brett Anderson of Suede. Her androgyny and attitude worked well for her, “like a barrier around me”, but it was also, she says, “just how I looked”.

“To a certain extent it was trying things on. But that’s what making things is, too. Making art is like deciding what you’re going to wear in the morning. There are things that I can’t stand – when I was a child I was terribly bothered by collars. Make-up, I can’t be doing with – having a big pair of red lips. I’ve gone to the odd wedding that way and I just feel so wrong. It’s not about wanting to be a bloke. It says something, even if it’s not articulated to yourself, about who you are.”

Lucas likes men, likes people in general – lives, you feel, for those long lunches with “cronies”. The heavier nature of today’s gender debate is “odd for my generation”, she says. “I’ve got mixed feelings about it. The total lack of humour. I’m for tolerance in general and I don’t like the intolerance.

“We are all just thrown in to this,” she adds, meaning life, giving up on the end of her rollie. “Blokes too. You get thrown in as a child and that’s how you learn.” It is not easy, she says, to see through our automatic, invisible codes of behaviour: “But every now and then, you get a chink of light and it’s often very funny. You can mobilise that moment, even if it’s a just thought process, and not an object. That’s what art is.”

There is a lot to complain about as an older woman, said Sarah Lucas, when she introduced her show to me. But she isn’t really complaining.

“Big Women” is showing at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester until June

[See also: Do “great artists” really steal?]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon