Sarah Lucas and the Pernicious Influence of Bruce Nauman – May 2015

Returning to the “real” world is sometimes a difficult thing. You slide back into your life. Everything feels just a bit off, nothing fits. It’s during times like these that I’ve been able to think outside of my own box. On the return plane ride I was ruminating about the Biennale, particularly about Sarah Lucas’ show in the British Pavilion. I really wanted to like this show. I’ve enjoyed her work in the past. She has a light touch about difficult things, she’s cheeky, and I like those qualities immensely. But during my walk through the pavilion a thought kept coming back to me. At first it seemed unfair, or maybe I just wasn’t dealing with the things in front of me with an open mind. So, I kept my mouth shut and tried to turn off my brain. But once the genie is out of the bottle – well, you know that old truism.

Dave Hickey once bemoaned the fact that ALL of us were held in check by the legacy of Bruce Nauman. I thought that was a bit off, but among the YBAs Nauman is a god and taskmaster. I was enjoying Sarah’s exhibit right up until the moment I saw the big, fat elephant lounging about in all of these rooms (and it wasn’t supposed to be part of the show – of that I’m sure). And that elephant was the pernicious legacy of Bruce Nauman. In fact as I went through the entire Biennale, both the Giardini and the Arsenale, I continued to see Nauman’s legacy in a lot of the work on view – including his own neon pieces that begin the Arsenale exhibition. I imagined a neon that lit up “Nauman”, then “Rip Off”, then “Nauman” again. But I guess in our Postmodern era of Entertainment Modernism we should just understand that innovation, or even personal style, is something that is no longer a worry in making one’s art. What we are supposed to enjoy, what we are supposed to become involved with is the artist, rather than the art.


“There is a paradox at the centre of much contemporary art: while the means by which that art is pursued are steadily less expressive of the artist’s personality, more reliant on conventional ideas than feelings, more the assemblage of ready-made elements than the creation of organic compositions, the personality of the artist, far from shrinking, has greatly expanded, sometimes overshadowing the work. Furthermore, the very fact that artists do rather little to their material but nevertheless garner huge rewards leads to a fascination with the artist as an individual.” Julian Stallabrass, “High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s,” page 18.


What Sarah brings to this pernicious legacy is her own sensibility, her own biography. Each body cast is an impersonal portrait, each one also acts as Lucas’ stand in. The sexual and excretory orifices of these topless forms contain a cigarette, an ever present prop in the life of this artist. One cast hovers over a toilet in the classic “morning after a hard night” pose, another sprawls across a table top, another collapsed in a heap, one straddles a toilet, one spread eagle on an office desk. At the beginning of the show is a “painting” of “Page Three” vixens providing, “the tops”, portraits, the images of desire that accompany and lead to the outcomes portrayed by the cast plaster lower extremities. These are women worn into and out of passion, caught by addiction, fluctuating desires and lived passions. At the very entrance of the pavilion, presented to us twice – once on the portico outside to double the point – may be the reason for this state of affairs. It’s a swollen, phallic monster arching his member high into the air looking for release. He is not fleshed out, he is a lumpy cartoon, a desiring sexual animal (and this is made clear by the other lumpy animals in the show.) The fact that Sarah calls him “Maradona” – after a legendary football player, a symbol of physical hyper-masculinity – may even be a sublimation of Nauman’s continuing presence in this very show. In other words Nauman is Maradona, the giant prick father of generations of desiring and spent Postmodern hero worshippers.

Alright – I’ve gone Over The Top with that, but I’m allowed. Venice makes allowances for such things. I really wanted to like this show, but it turns out that I like Sarah Lucas better than the show. There’s a lot of clever punning going on, a lot of sensitive issues being laid bare with a bit of dry humor. The installation is perfect. But there never is an actual challenge to the giant prick father. And in the end that’s what I hope to see.

Still… Cheeky Monkey!

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