Sarah Lucas can be a difficult and polarising artist to discuss in any context, but especially within the frequently divisive Venice Biennale. The event is one of the easiest ways to galvanise an audience in the UK, and by selecting Lucas, whose infamy amongst the YBAs of the 1990s helped make events like the Turner Prize and its associated attention a favourite critical target, the decision makers here have ensured that this year’s Pavilion will not go unnoticed.
In many respects, those favourite hallmark targets are all on display in the British Pavilion; the egg yolk yellow colouring, the massive abstracted phallus which greets the viewer as they enter, the plaster casts of the lower halves of woman’s bodies bent over furniture with cigarettes protruding from various orifices. The accompanying pamphlet alone, with headings like ‘spots,’ ‘fags’ and ‘cats,’ written in the artist’s confrontational and unapologetic style, provides everything the British press could need to gleefully attack this exhibition. Even the title ‘I SCREAM DADDIO’ feels like a provocation.
And yet the show itself is for the most part, a reasonably cohesive and structured affair. The works are new without departing too much from the artist’s previous oeuvre, and the pieces are all well executed and installed in a way which remains conscious of the space and the nature of the sculptures themselves. There are single works like ‘Washing Machine Egg Yolk’ spread in between body motifs, appliances and furniture, while the two works with ‘Black Tit Cat’ in the title reflect the structure of the larger ‘Maradona’ works. Perhaps largely because of Lucas’ infamy, there is also something inescapably British about the work, particularly British art of the last 15 or so years.
What hampers the exhibition however, is not the work as much as the surroundings. Many artists have commented on the double edged sword that exhibiting at Venice can be where anything produced must compete for attention with its environment. Here, it’s not the city setting so much as the other works on display that detract from Lucas’ exhibition. The heavily political and theoretical tone of this year’s event makes Lucas’ work here seem even brasher and somehow at odds with the other, sometimes earnest and frequently socially engaged, works on display. That’s not to say that Sarah Lucas’ work doesn’t touch on these issues as well. Her recent interviews have mentioned the significance of the nudity in her work as well as the use of phallic imagery as a rarer occurrence in the art world, to say nothing of the arguably submissive positioning of the female bodies.
Perhaps the sense of Lucas’ work feeling out of place suggests more about the narrow curatorial dialogue this year in Venice. The otherwise comical elements of her work seem almost mistimed and disconnected amongst works addressing the global economic recession (Greece), mass surveillance (New Zealand) and colonisation (Belgium) to name just a few examples. The same body of work in a less loaded and less crowded space would let the exhibition speak for itself in a way which the works sometimes struggle to here in Venice.