Sarah Lucas gives the Venice Biennale its just desserts

Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale sits at the top of a man-made hill at the eastern end of the Giardini, a park laid out during the Napoleonic era and a venue for the International Art Exhibition in Venice since 1895. Opened in 1909 for the 8th biennale, the original building was a café-restaurant converted into an exhibition space by British architect EA Rickards.

This year, for the 56th Biennale, Sarah Lucas is representing Britain in the pavilion with an exhibition titled I SCREAM DADDIO. “Getting” Lucas’s trademark pun requires a basic knowledge of the history of the pavilion and its previous occupants. The dessert in the title – ICE CREAM DADDIO – is an echo of the building’s origin as place of leisure and pleasure.

Lucas takes this further with her concept of the exhibition itself as dessert. In particular the show has an affinity with the pudding îles flottantes (which translates as floating islands, like Venice) – meringues in a sea of custard. Crème anglaise of course: language is an important driver of Lucas’s art. Îles flottantes is also the favourite pudding of London architect turned celebrity chef Fergus Henderson, who contributes the recipe to the exhibition catalogue.

Sarah Lucas at the British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

This is the idea behind the decision to paint the walls of the British Pavilion custard yellow, but Lucas also succeeds in her other aim with the colour, which was to “flood the pavilion with sunlight”, a welcome pleasure in a difficult space, in the past boxed in, blacked out or packed too full with artwork.

Cheerful feminism

So dessert is one meaning of the punning exhibition title, but it could also be interpreted as a cry of frustration at the exhibition history of the national showcase in the world’s oldest international art exhibition. In 1948, the first post-war British pavilion exhibition at Venice introduced, with sculptor Henry Moore, the tradition of showing the work of a single, established, mid-career artist each Biennale. Since then only four women before Lucas have been selected to exhibit in the building: Barbara Hepworth in 1950, Bridget Riley in 1968, Rachel Whiteread in 1997 and Tracey Emin in 2007.

That I SCREAM DADDIO comes down cheerfully on the ice cream side of the title is a measure of Lucas’s mature confidence. The big yellow, cast resin sculpture on the pavilion’s portico is a reclining male nude called Gold Cup Maradona. He waves visitors up the hill and into the building with a nine-foot erection, obviously pleased to see us. But also he waves back across the decades to all those sculptures of the reclining female nude by Henry Moore. This is an assured, amiable gesture from an artist with impeccable feminist credentials who has finally attained her rightful place in the history of British sculpture.

Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Gold Cup Maradona’s paler yellow double, Deep Cream Maradona, occupies the main space in the pavilion. His nine-food member is a satisfying formal solution to the impossible height of the room. Lucas calls it “the hand of God”, after the emotionally charged first goal scored by Diego Maradona with his hand in the Argentina versus England match in the finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup, four years after Thatcher’s invasion of the Falkland Islands and Britain’s war with Argentina. Is Lucas tilting at English jingoism right at the heart of the national pavilion?

Looking Forward

Sarah Lucas, Black Tit Cat Eames, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

What is exhilarating about the exhibition as a whole is Lucas’s ability to think forward using her own longstanding formal vocabulary. Take, for example, the captivating, many breasted Tit Cats, cast in bronze, its surface a cross between black Murano glass and PVC fetish wear.

They are sophisticated and vaguely sinister Venetian cousins of her London domestic cat on an ironing board of 2012, as well as the Tit Teddies, all made of kapok, tights and wire. The idea more than survives the translation from cheap, domestic to costly, traditional materials and processes of sculpture, but sacrifices cute and cuddly in the process.,courtesy Sadie Coles HQ

From the very beginning Sarah Lucas’s career has been supported and nurtured by remarkable women, foremost her London gallerist Sadie Coles, and Pauline Daley, Director at Sadie Coles HQ in London. They were in the pavilion on the opening morning quietly and efficiently doing their jobs. They are present as well in sculptural tributes as two in a series of “muses”.

Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, British Pavilion 2015. Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council

Reversing the convention of the bust in sculpture, these are white plaster casts (meringues in the custard) of women from the waist down, leaning, squatting and reclining on furniture plinths, one on a white chest freezer big as royal sarcophagus. They all have real cigarettes inserted into the vagina or anus – “for titillation mostly” according to Lucas in the exhibition notes. It doesn’t do anything for me, except to disrupt the sculptures’ formal neoclassicism, but it wouldn’t be a Sarah Lucas exhibition without the fags, and how else is a girl supposed to have a celebratory drag when she hasn’t got a mouth?

Sarah Lucas’s British Council commission is at la Biennale di Venezia until 22 November 2015.

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