Sarah Lucas’ Happy Gas is An Unapologetic Look at Womanhood

The 1990s served as a turning point for many female creatives due to the rise of the DIY and Riot grrrl culture across the US and UK. Alternative media outlets such as zines and unconventional art forms allowed women to express their thoughts regarding various political and socio-economic issues. 

One of the most prominent artists to emerge from this time was Sarah Lucas, a London-based artist who gained recognition for her work during the Young British Artists movement of the late 1980s. Sarah exhibited her work amongst fellow artists such as Tracey Emin and Cornelia Parker, who were also known for pushing the envelope by utilizing unconventional materials to further conversations around womanhood and identity. 

The Young British Artists movement was not only known for using unconventional materials such as cigarettes or women’s tights that Sarah was most known for using in her work but also utilizing methods such as film, video and photography, further developing the concept of “installation art.” Combining unconventional materials that could be seen as “everyday objects” with more traditional mediums furthers the conversation around what can be perceived as art and, more importantly, why. 

Sarah’s work is now being brought to the forefront for a new generation of art lovers and creators.

Sarah’s work is now being brought to the forefront for a new generation of art lovers and creators. In a recent exhibit with the London-based gallery Tate Britain, Happy Gas showcased an array of Sarah’s most thought-provoking and provocative work that questioned the role of women in society and provided a different lens to look through regarding femininity. 

Sarah’s sculpture, titled The Old Couple, provides commentary regarding aging and sexuality. It depicts two wooden chairs sitting by the side of each other; one chair has a phallic-like object, while the other has a pair of false teeth glued to the center of the chair. The pair of false teeth is constructed to look like a vulva, representing a woman’s anatomy. The two chairs represent a traditional heterosexual couple who have aged together. It raises questions about how we depict the concept of aging, who gets the label “of aging gracefully,” and simply growing older. 

The sculpture’s position in the exhibit is also essential because surrounding these two chairs were other furniture pieces, which traditionally can be seen as a living room area. This furthers the conversation regarding sexuality and home because femininity and womanhood are often discussed in the private realm due to the “traditional female role” of women doing housework and child care in the privacy of their own homes. 

Click image to enlarge.

Further exploring the idea of womanhood primarily occurring in the home is the sculpture Fat Doris. Fat Doris is one of Sarah’s most recent sculptures, which was completed in 2023. It depicts a seemingly older woman sitting on an armchair, exhausted as if she has no interest in moving any time soon. The sculpture is wearing an important accessory: platform high-heeled shoes, which can be seen as vain. Placing this type of shoe on Fat Doris lends its help in creating the identity of Fat Doris. She represents qualities that women should be scared of becoming, but they feel liberated once embraced.

The sculpture utilizes materials such as women’s tights and platform heels that are useful in creating this caricature of a “woman.” Furthermore, how Sarah constructed the woman’s body by stuffing women’s tights to create the body and the dramatization of Fat Doris’ “saggy breasts” forces viewers to reckon with how society views women’s bodies when they are not the “societal ideal” that can be found in mainstream media. 

Additionally, there is a second sculpture sitting beside Fat Doris, Tit Tom 2. This sculpture depicts a black animal-like creature offering a companion to Fat Doris. This companion could be seen as a cat, a pet most commonly associated with older women. Cats represent a sense of solitude and independence; a quality women have been praised and demonized for. Placing Tit Tom 2 beside Fat Doris creates the perfect duo for audiences to grapple with their understanding of what they consider to be appropriate behavior, attitudes and appearance for women. 

Sarah’s hands-on role in curating the exhibit allows her to showcase her vision in storytelling and artmaking.

Dreams Go Up in Smoke brings full circle to what Sarah’s work looks to reckon with the concept of the “traditional woman.” Sarah’s usage of cigarettes is key in depicting rebellion due to the symbolism they represent. On the other hand, the bronze creature depicted with the woman is seen as a “satan-like” creature, traditionally seen as the ultimate entity of rebellion against the status quo. 

The woman allows herself to enjoy this sense of rebellion, particularly evident in how the bronze creature has positioned itself towards the woman. Dreams Go Up in Smoke highlights how women should be able to enjoy and explore their bodies and, in doing so, is an act of rebellion against the patriarchy. 

In an interview with Apollo Magazine, Sarah describes her involvement in the exhibit’s curation. “An exhibition is an artwork in itself, she said; it’s a bit like staging a drama. This one is in four acts. The characters are all sculptures that somehow incorporate a chair. There are four main rooms.” 

Sarah’s hands-on role in curating the exhibit allows her to showcase her vision in storytelling and artmaking. The way the exhibit flowed and told a story alongside the art shows the importance of artists having a say in presenting their work to the general public. 

The concept of womanhood and femininity should be whacky, shocking and liberating. Sarah acknowledges how women have been forced to be portrayed in art and throw it all away. Despite Happy Gas‘ run ending at the end of January 2024, Sarah’s work is long but over. She will continue inspiring a generation of rebels who dare think outside the status quo. 

© Jessica Bond (2/11/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read about Sarah Lucas on Wikipedia.

Learn more about the Tate Britain museum in London.

Read the interview with Sarah Lucas from Apollo Magazine.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Happy Gas exhibit at the Tate Britain museum in London. Courtesy of Jessica Bond.

Middle photo: Fat Doris sculpture from the Happy Gas exhibit at the Tate Britain museum in London. Courtesy of Jessica Bond.

Bottom photo: Portrait of English artist Sarah Lucas. Photo Credit: David Pearson (1/12/05) / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: A5CG61

Tags: Cornelia Parker, installation art, Jessica Bond, London, Riot grrrl, Sarah Lucas, Tate Britain, Tracey Emin, Young British Artists movement

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Jess joined FF2 Media as a 2020 graduate of Temple University's journalism program. She has a passion for the arts and using writing as a tool to spread awareness on social issues, independent and small artists. She is a 2021-2022 Fulbright recipient to the University of Sussex, getting her MA in Media and Cultural Studies. She hopes to become an international journalist focusing on local communities and showing the beauty within them.
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