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Issue 200

Sarah Lucas’s ‘Beer Can Penis’ Unfurls a Micro-History of Modern Sculpture

‘It encourages you to ponder its exalted lineage while taking the piss out of you for doing so’

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Fan Letter | 09 JAN 19

Sarah Lucas, from the series 'Beer Can Penis', 1993–2004, beer cans, dimensions variable. © Sarah Lucas; courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

I remember being taken aback by the size of Sarah Lucas’s penis. It was smaller than I had anticipated. It arrived in the post at the Dublin gallery for which I was assembling a small show of artists’ multiples in 2001. Some years earlier, I had spotted a version of the work, Beer Can Penis (1993–2004), on an office windowsill at Sadie Coles HQ in Heddon Street, London. I had been taken with this rude rendition of male tackle, composed of two deftly intersected empty beer cans. Its disarming economy of means, its wit and its brio, were a throwback to an earlier freewheeling moment when a bull’s head could be conjured from bicycle parts.

On considering Beer Can Penis further, a micro-history of modern sculpture magically unfurled, from Louise Bourgeois’s Fillette (1968) through Yayoi Kusama’s polyphallic shoes, John Chamberlain’s interpenetrating metal mash-ups and Jasper Johns’s Two Beer Cans (1960). Further back still, there were Marcel Duchamp’s ‘erotic objects’ from the 1950s, Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Disagreeable Objects’ (1931) and Constantin Brâncusi’s once-scandalous Princess X (1915–16). The latter is a phallic ‘bust’ of Marie Bonaparte, to whom Sigmund Freud famously remarked that the great question left unanswered by all his research was: ‘What does a woman want?’

Beer Can Penis is art to make your head spin: a decep­tively simple sculptural gesture that encourages you to ponder its exalted lineage while reserving the right to take the piss out of you for doing so. That said, the version of Beer Can Penis that arrived in Dublin was a tad disconcerting, and it took a moment to realize why. As a nod to the show’s location, I had requested a few ‘Guinness versions’ of the multiple from Lucas’s London gallery. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that, at the time, there was no London market for half-litre cans of the stuff. Apparently, the only cans available were of the stubbier 330ml variety. So, unlike the examples I had previously encountered, my ‘Irish’ Lucases, though no less characterful, were notably less well-endowed than their English counterparts. Served me right, I suppose.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.