In a recent article in a national newspaper the inhabitants of Milton Keynes were asked about the future of their city. The worst-case scenario, according to 16-year-old Katie, was that the town could 'become like London [...] and London's horrible'. After visiting the 'Temple of Bacchus', a collaboration between Sarah Lucas, Colin Lowe and Roddy Thomson at the Milton Keynes Gallery, I can see Katie's point. In their examination of London pub culture the artists have succeeded in converting the pristine spaces of the gallery into a seedy, smoky, sticky ode to the self-destructive consequences of drunkenness, gambling and smoking, exposing the Dionysian underbelly of English society in the process.
In their version of St George and the Dragon, Lucas' three-metre Drag-On (2003) lunges towards its opponent, Lowe and Thomson's Drink Demon/Two Faced Lying Little Fucker (2003). Modelled on Paolo Uccello's Beast (1490), the monster's scaly skin is rendered from cigarettes, and George is the antithesis of a strapping saint - burdened with two heads, he collapses to his knees with blood gushing from the stump of his right arm. Based on the artists' self-portraits, George's two mouths suck from huge whisky bottles fastened to his back like oxygen tanks. While drink superficially fuels his alcoholic gallantry, the 'saint' is simultaneously shown 'losing his bottle' as he plunges his own double-edged sword into his chest. The dual nature of drink is echoed in the knight's armour and chain mail, fabricated from beer mats and links of small change. Festooned with heraldic stags, stallions and slogans such as 'Strongbow', 'Courage' and 'Whitbread Trophy', the mats are reinstated with chivalric connotations frequently used in much beer advertising. Rather than being a victorious hero, the patron saint of Englishmen is reduced to a coward who would rather drink himself into oblivion than confront the effects of his bad habits.
A large white hearse entitled Thank You and Goodnight (2003) was parked in the entrance to the room. Formerly a working vehicle, a fag-lined coffin lies in the boot with its lid slightly ajar. The casket emanates an orange glow reminiscent of both a lit cigarette and the cremation process - ashes to ashes. Like Salvador Dalí's Rainy Day Taxi (1938), the work combines incongruous objects, including an overturned fruit machine on the roof of the car. As a typical feature of pub interiors, this gambling equipment recalls phrases associated with death such as 'your luck's run out'. Throughout the show the reading of the sculptures is informed by the use of late Medieval imagery, for example Lowe and Thomson's Chinagraph drawing Eat Me (2003), depicting Adam and Eve picking an apple from the tree of knowledge. Lucas' It's Not The End of the World (Remember Me) (2003) employs cigarettes to draw a skeletal grim reaper riding an emaciated horse, cleverly refashioning the cigarette as the ultimate memento mori for modern man.
This mixture of traditional iconography and art-historical reference was particularly prominent in the Cube Gallery. In the centre of the room could be found Lowe and Thomson's recreation of Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1816) from blackened chunks of charcoal. The cruciform mast was reiterated in the vast red cross on the wall behind, to which was nailed an iconic Christ. As with the dragon, Lucas' Christ You Know it Ain't Easy (2003) consists of immaculately applied lines of fags rippling in contours across Christ's pathetically limp frame. Delicate details, such as the way the yellow filters create small wound-like slashes and how the singed cigarettes create a crown of thorns, imbue the figure with a sense of pathos. Lucas intended this work to represent her own agonizing relationship with smoking as she battles to quit a habit that she knows will ultimately kill her.
Traditionally, devotional sculpture demanded considerable material and labour investment - the substitution of gold leaf for fags is a reflection of the sheer cost of harmful habits. Lowe and Thomson's She Cried a Lonely Night Too Often (2003) complements both works by covering the adjacent wall in empty gin bottles plus optics. The overall impression is one of tears of grief, sleeting rain or simply the effect of seeing double(s) after too many drinks.
In The Yard Ape (2003) the central gallery was transformed into a replica of a traditional London pub, complete with red flock paper, pork scratchings and beer pumps. Perched on a barstool sits Mr Fuzzlewit (2003) in a patchwork beer towel suit and a pair of undone boots. This featureless and lonely figure seems particularly fitting for the anti-social nature of the British binge drinker. Behind the bar the artists have installed a complete ladies' loo and men's urinal, mixing toilet humour with Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades.
Lucas, Lowe and Thomson's collaboration is full of clever linguistic and visual puns that reflect a British sense of humour as much as our bad social habits. While their work preaches against the hazards of hard drinking and chain smoking, one can't help but think that a night in the pub with these three might be quite good fun.