BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 03 MAR 00
Featured in
Issue 51

Sarah Lucas Encourages You to Laugh at Obscenity

The artist's latest show at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, combines smutty hilarity with art-historical motifs

BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 03 MAR 00

Sarah Lucas' exhibition 'Beautiness' was a chamber of horrors and a wanker-world for the nicotine-obsessed. Located in an abandoned car workshop lined with exposed pipes, fluorescent lighting and stressed pale green paint, it was also the best site-specific work that Berlin has seen for a while. What Lucas still does so well is tap into things that have enormously compressed cultural resonance: cars, coffins, dumb jokes about genitals, tabloid sex chronicles, and cigarettes. Really common stuff that's as ubiquitous and loaded as crucifixes in a monastery. Thinking of religious symbols, 'Beautiness' was concerned with an ancient one - the phallus. In this exhibition, male genitalia was at once everywhere and invisible.

However, Lucas doesn't want us to worship at the altar of omnipresent dick or self-satisfaction, and those who try to laugh along too much with her in-your-face works are probably doing just that. Placed around the vacated workshop were half-a-dozen or so flesh-toned casts of arms, their hands making a fist around absent members. One of these lurid amputations, Piguwanker (1999), was attached to a spring. A young male gallery attendant thoughtfully gave it a nudge - the rest doesn't take much imagination. When it's not funny, obscenity is just mundane, embarrassing and potentially violent. But the reproduction of human gesture is magical, even when it's rudimentary and of a kind that you don't wish to enjoy as a public spectacle. Elsewhere, four other similarly kinetic and creepy approximations of life - protruding prosthetic devices driven by simple electric motors - were running non-stop. One, titled Bigger Cheaper (and you can do it at home) (1999), was attached to a chair in a miserable room built from cardboard boxes with a peep hole; another was in the driver's seat of a beaten up BMW customised by the artist to look extra trashy; while another hung high on a wall and made a long slow arc. After all this smutty hilarity with art-historical undertones, a darkened room with a low ceiling contained a little shock - New Religion (1999), a neon outline of a coffin. It was hard not to see this compelling sculptural evocation of death as a desirable resolution to the sordid and loveless sexuality reproduced by Lucas.

An image of one potential half of the coffin's missing corpse-to-be could be found in Beautiness (1999). From a wooden-framed C-type print leaning against a wall, Lucas herself frowned with a kind of smart-arsed, streetwise crooked smile, and obligatory fag in her mouth. This mock(ing) tough girl shows us what she's got - a pair of cigarette-covered, melon-sized orbs held at breast height. The only other woman in the show was a sculptural portrait of a cleaning lady: It Sucks (1999). It was in a former office, just like the ones where girlie calendars normally hang. Lucas had covered a commercial vacuum cleaner with bent cigarettes, and from it hung the tobacco tits in a brown brassiere - a macabre ensemble. The implied politics of the piece were pertinent in a city full of working-class migrant cleaners. The dimensions of the office were reproduced in another sculpture, Pig (1999). It's an enamel bath surrounded by a shallow square puddle of poured pink toned concrete. Again, it's gross and direct - the babe has been thrown out with the bath water, or rather drained out, and solidified on the floor, like a cheeky counterpoint to Whiteread's elegant cast baths. But if art-historical comparisons must be made, you might think first of Robert Mapplethorpe's smiling portrait of Louise Bourgeois and her toy.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.