I guess the leap from thinking about a woman artist making a sculpture of a cock to Sarah Lucas’s work is a distinctly literal one, but as I saw Lucas’s exhibition at the Whitechapel shortly before it ended last month, her work’s been on my mind.
There is of course a long history of toilets in the gallery space but it’s a form few have used with such determined consistency as Sarah Lucas. And while Duchamp’s Fountain – like the works that reference it very directly, such as Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (Buddha) – seems somehow more about the form than the function of the artefact and Claes Oldenberg’s Soft Toilet can be enjoyed for the strange disjunction between the form and materials used in the work and the function of the object on which it is based, Lucas’s toilet works are often grubby and unpleasant to look at.
Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)
The first thing that confused me about the German Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was that it was in France. Well, not France the actual country, but in France’s pavilion: the two countries swapped buildings for the 55th Venice Biennale as a cultural exchange. Walking into the building the first work on show – in a large central space that generally dictates the tone of anything shown there – was Bang, an installation made of an exploding forest of wooden three-legged stools by the not even a bit German artist (and subject of my last couple of posts) Ai Weiwei. What did it all mean?
There are some days you think might never come. Frankly, recently, I was beginning to think that the day I got back to regular blogging might be one of them but I started today with a new determination. Then I got distracted and by the time I sat down to write I quite foray onto the interwebs provided me with both further distraction in the form of the the news that Margaret Thatcher is finally dead (for real this time, not just yet another Twitter rumour). To mark the occasion – and after the havoc she wreaked through my late teens and twenties, it does need to be marked (and yes, I’d be dusting off my copy of Spike: the Beloved Entertainer if only I had a record deck that worked) – it seems pertinent to write about Marcus Harvey’s Maggie.
Marcus Harvey is undoubtedly best known for another controversial portrait: Myra, a picture of Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints (well, prints from plaster cast hands), caused untold furore when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the Sensation exhibition. His painting Maggie, made nearly a decade and a half later, is rather less well known but equally striking. In my head at least, they are companion pieces: both large scale, black and white paintings made from images widely reproduced in the press and both – arguably, and here I concede there is a difference – portraits of, well, if not actually evil, then of women whose lives one would wish had followed a different path.
Sebastian Errazuriz, Complete (Duchamp Series), 2005
If Duchamp’s readymades changed art, and it seems pretty clear that they did, it’s not surprising that artists still return not only to the idea of the readymade but also to Duchamp’s own work. Sebastian Errazuriz’s Complete (Duchamp Series) goes beyond Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel to provide a more complete, though still fragmented, bicycle assemblage. The familiar bicycle wheel upturned and attached to a white painted stool is here. But here it’s accompanied by a second wheel, plus the handlebars and pedals.
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913 (authorised reproduction 1951, original lost)
The means of transport link is a bit tenuous here but I seem to have been writing about a lot of works that are in some way related to the idea of the readymade or assemblage so not mentioning Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel would seem like a strange omission. This is a sculpture so simple it’s hard to see it as something that predated minimalism by several decades. Whenever I stop to really think about Duchamp and the idea of the readymade I’m astonished that it took just fifty years to get from the outrage that greeted Édouard Manet’s 1963 painting Le déjeurner sur l’herbe, often seen as heralding the start of Modern Art, to a bicycle wheel on a white stool being declared to be art. That it predated the formation of Dada, a movement with which Duchamp was associated, with its ideas of an anti-art in response to the horrors of the first world war also seems extraordinary.
The VW Beetle is not the only vehicle Damián Ortega has used as art materials. In Miracolo Italiano Ortega presented three Vespa scooters in various states of wholeness. The scooter leading the parade is whole but the ones behind it are exploding out into the space, with the second one showing early signs of breaking up and the third one as fragmented as the Beetle in Cosmic Stuff. Like the Beetle, the Vespa is a twentieth century icon and Miracolo Italiano was made for an exhibition in it’s home city of Turin
No car maintenance manual would be complete without an exploded view diagram or two, so it seems appropriate that it should be a car that Damián Ortega chose to break apart and display as a kind of three-dimensional diagrammatic representation of itself; indeed Ortega based the car’s deconstruction on the diagram in the car’s repair manual. The car in question in Ortega’s sculpture Cosmic Thing is a 1989 VW Beetle. The Beetle is one of the Seen from the side – or the front, albeit to a lesser extent, as the picture after the jump will show – the car is immediately recognisable and the work seems like a drawing in many ways.
Simon Starling, Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2), 2005
At first sight, Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture no. 2) appears to be a readymade. It’s an old shed. It looks a bit the worse for wear, but age will do that to a shed. Things aren’t quite a simple as they appear though and the first clue’s in the title.
Shedboatshed is a shed. Shedboatshed started out as a shed. But it hasn’t always been a shed. Starling turned an old shed, which he’d found in the banks of the Rhine, into a boat which he then used to get to Basel, carrying the unused parts of the shed in the boat. On arrival, the shed was reassembled and exhibited in the Kunstmuseum Basel and later that year in Tate Britain as part of the Turner Prize exhibition, which Starling won.
Having seen quite a bit of work made from existing objects recently and having been reminded about Au Naturel by seeing Tracey Emin’s Dead Sea in her exhibition at Turner Contemporary, which I wrote about here a while ago, I find myself wondering why it’s taken me this long to write about Sarah Lucas’s work.
Essentially, Au Naturel is a very simple sculpture of a man and woman in bed, he represented by two oranges and a cucumber, she by a bucket and a pair of melons. What makes this work for me is that the visual joke of the assemblage triggers thoughts about language and the slang terms used for body parts. In particular, with works like this, Lucas draws attention to the derogatory way women’s bodies are often described colloquially.
I seem to be looking at a lot of art made from other stuff at the moment. The journey from Bruce Lacey’s assemblages and robots at Camden Arts Centre to Damián Ortega’s sculptures at White Cube Mason’s Yard is a short tube ride and a big conceptual leap. Both exhibitions include sculpture made from ordinary objects but the two shows feel worlds apart.