Sarah Lukas’ Au Naturel
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Sarah Lucas’ Au Naturel installation created in 1994 takes a stab at the post-feminist dilemma. The Feminism (capital “F”) of the Judy Chicagos, of the 1970s and 1980s, demanded a united front; it called for courage, resolve, and a bullhorn. Now that, more or less, the outward signs that the broader strokes of the feminist agenda have been achieved, such as parity in the workplace and in educational opportunity, feminists might ask, what sort of political voice is appropriate at the beginning of the 21st century.
One answer is to take an autobiographical approach to the problem, one that embraces the push-pull between culture and anti-culture. For Lucas, this is found in her working class roots. It is also her sometimes rude and sometimes wry British sense of humor. Think Benny Hill.
Au Naturel is a shabby full size mattress slumped halfway up against the gallery wall. Two melons and a bucket on the left side represent a “her.” Two oranges and a cucumber represent a “him.” It is a visual pun that reduces a man and a woman lying in bed together to their sexual organs. It is accessible on the surface level of visual pun as simple fiction. It is easy enough for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and take at face value this direct one-to-one substitution. Outside of the visual pun, there does not appear to be any irony in the piece and Lucas also does not appear to take a moral position. Instead, through the plain speech of these “low” objects, “au naturel,” she arrives at an objective truth about this encounter. What you see is what you get: Just a snapshot of a male / female relationship, non-glamorous, functional, and perhaps as suggested by the mattress and the bucket, a working class existence.
The pun might elicit an initial snicker from the viewer who has after all come to the museum to view high art, until they realize that perhaps what they are laughing at comes from a feeling of class superiority, of looking down on an “other.” It is the act of “snickering at,” of disdain, that constructs the other. A more self-aware viewer might also realize that for the moment they have adopted the crude vocabulary of the visual pun. Breasts really are melons. Penis is a big cucumber. Her vagina is the hole in the bucket. Through the strange magic of the museum, the viewer is transformed into the “type of person” who debases language and lacks class. This is different from an actor on a stage who knowingly assumes a role and maintains a layer of separation and who can say, this is not really me. For the viewer in this case, it is their passive participation in the joke that sparks a recognition of an ugly truth, one that is “inappropriate for public display” or “not proper.” It is this recognition that might engender a feeling of discomfort or even revulsion.
Lucas is a master at creating these kinds of abject relationships. Women have traditionally occupied the space of abjection in a patriarchal society. To answer contemporary society’s question: We’ve acknowledged feminism, what is it that women still want? Sarah Lucas and the post-feminist answer is simple: Complexity in understanding and the re-appropriation of language.
(Photo Credit: Au Naturel, 1994, Copyright Sarah Lucas, Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London)