meat and two veg

Sarah Lucas's art is strong meat, tough to digest. This is not food as consumer foreplay, but as sex itself. In this work, specially created for our British food issue, women are made of more than sugar and spice. By Suzanne Moore
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sarah Lucas likes her food. Her studio is just round the corner from St John, a restaurant near Smithfield, specialising in traditional British food, where she eats fairly regularly. "I like all that stuff. I like my greens, most definitely. The food there is plain. It's either roasted or boiled, though you might have something with a strong flavour on the side, like a garlic mayonnaise. It's not mucked about with, not fancy. You know what you are eating."

Lucas's art also appears straightforward. You know what you are seeing, though you may prefer not to. Whereas, traditionally, food offers comfort, Lucas's work often uses food in a way that makes people feel deeply uncomfortable. She has used melons, bananas, fried eggs, baked beans, kebabs, cucumbers, oranges, milk and digestive biscuits amongst other things to make her art. Bitch consists of a table with a white T-shirt pulled over its legs. Hanging in the T-shirt are two melons. At the end of the table is a vacuum- packed kipper. With these few materials, she has made a woman bending over, and boiled down a classic male fantasy to its raw ingredients. Picasso, as Waldemar Januszczak reminded us, also used melons to represent female breasts. In 1931, he painted a bowl of ripe fruit on a small table. In it were two ripe melons which represented the breasts of his under-age mistress, Marie-Therese. He did not want his wife to recognise this image as a portrait of his mistress.

Lucas, though, has nothing to hide. Her work is remarkably direct and remarkable because we don't expect women to ever be that direct. She is spoken of as part of a new breed of youngish female artists who play by their own rules. They drink, they smoke, they have sex. That this should be considered so innovative and shocking only serves to highlight the innate conservatism of the art world, even in its new groovy Britart manifestation. To reduce the work of Lucas and Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Angela Bulloch, Georgina Starr and Gillian Wearing to an artistic equivalent of the Spice Girls is to render them fluffy, titillating and ultimately assimiliable.

Sarah Lucas, who has exhibited her well-worn Doc Marten's with razor blades inserted into the toe caps, who has made nudes out of Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, whose Au Naturel consisted of an old, stained mattress on which lay two oranges and a strategically placed erect cucumber next to two melons with a big bucket, could never be described as fluffy.

She is rude, confrontational, full of bare-faced cheek. It's all a big joke and yet there is a pared-downness, a deceptive simplicity, about the work that makes it impossible to ignore, that demands you take it seriously. Lucas uses food, she says, because quite simply, "I like the idea of something standing in for something else. I mean, most people look at a banana and they think of something else. If you are walking through a market carrying a great big marrow - I mean, it's quite suggestive, isn't it? I just assume that most people make that connection."

The old food and sex connection? Of course we make it, but we tend to do so in a highly aestheticised form. Think of the Flake adverts, full of fellating floozies, or of Nine and a Half Weeks, or of the coffee-table books about rude food which are just an excuse to show naked women covered with exotic fruit and glistening syrup. All of this is, naturally, done in the best possible taste. Lucas's work, on the other hand, confronts us with the crude facts of sexual difference, of sexual desire and sexual disgust. Her work is not designed to turn people on: "I don't know if anyone is turned on by it. A lot of people are turned off, disgusted with the objects I have made. They find it quite unpleasant. A lot of my friends have asked me just what my problem is? I'm not sure I've got one."

Lucas's problem is that her work forces connections that may go on routinely in our heads but that we don't really want brought to the surface. Her images stop you in your tracks because we are shocked - by what flashes through our own minds, never mind hers. In this new work, Lucas has used typically British food, cabbages and bacon and leeks. She has tried to be less obvious, using cabbages instead of melons for breasts. In doing so, she has produced something that has an almost classical feel. The grunge of Au Naturel is gone, yet her ability to disturb is still there. One of the images, not reproduced here, of a raw chicken over knickers, will outrage some: "Oh yeah, it's very Eraserhead, the chicken. People can't handle the fact that it's got an orifice. It's strange, no one is ever surprised when someone gets their tits out, but a body with a chicken on it..."

Sarah likes to push it but is genuinely amazed by what other folk find disgusting. After all, she loves meat. "I really like the idea that we are all meat." She also likes keeping her pants on. She had thought of photographing her meat and two veg against naked flesh but was worried that it might "look like advertising". Instead, she decided to go for grubby, old-fashioned British underwear. It's what she wears after all. "Those kind of underpants are ingrained in the British psyche aren't they?

Anyway, knickers are always ruder on than off."

The result is that these images are very rude indeed, but a million miles away from the food as foreplay images that saturate our culture. They are also profoundly British. Lucas uses food not as a prelude to sex but as the thing itself. Her food may be naughty but it is definitely not nice - it does not confuse sex with love. Although she does not know how being a woman influences her art - "I've never been anything else" - she knows all too well that women are referred to as edible objects, as crumpet, cherries, tarts. If men objectify women, Lucas objectifies them back. She make herself a defiant subject rather than object in her art.

Most women have a complicated relationship to food: it is deeply symbolic. Eating disorders are often described as a form of flight from sexual identity. Lucas, on the other hand, is using food symbolically but in order to get to the core of sexual identity. She expresses her anger rather than swallowing it and that may make her work difficult to digest. It is easier to think little girls are made of sugar and spice than kippers and melons, fried eggs and bacon. But then it's still easier, perhaps, not to think of female appetite at all. I'm not all that surprised when Lucas nonchalantly tells me: "I eat pretty well, actually," and laughs out loud

Comments