No Smoking

By Darwent, Charles | New Statesman (1996), March 20, 2000 | Go to article overview
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No Smoking


Darwent, Charles, New Statesman (1996)


ART

CHARLES DARWENT on what one artist does with her cigarettes

Artists have taken their inspiration from all kinds of things in the past -- war, worship, political intrigue -- but never, so far as I can recall, from the aesthetic properties of low-tar cigarettes. This fact alone makes the exhibition of Sarah Lucas's new work, "The Fag Show", something of a novelty. Lucas gave up smoking her favourite Marlboro Lights last summer and, artistically speaking, has never looked back.

Lucas may have given up smoking cigarettes, but this does not mean she has given up buying them. "The Fag Show" contains a dozen or so works in which low-tar Marlboros play a starring role: a vacuum cleaner, Hoover Junior, which the artist has covered, nozzle to plug, in a carapace of fags; a pair of garden gnomes, ditto; a yachtsman's inflatable life vest, embroidered all over with cigarettes; and a self-portrait of Lucas on brown paper, its outline formed by the familiar dot-dash-dot sequence of cork-brown filters and white cigarette papers. In one corner of the exhibition, a cheap wooden chair sports a pair of Marlboro-Light-covered breasts shaped like rugby balls. In another corner, its male alter ego boasts a penile fibreglass marrow, complete with low-tar foreskin.

What is this all about? The image that springs most instantly to mind is that of Andy Capp's long-suffering wife, Flo. Flo, you will remember, went through life with a mop in one hand and a cigarette (of indeterminate brand, but probably not low-tar) in the other. Between these two things, mop and fag, emerged some kind of portrait of gender, a dual metaphor for woman's lot. Lucas's linking of domestic drudgery and chain-smoking merely takes things a step further, eliding these two metaphorical objects into a series of composite ones: a cigarette-vacuum-cleaner, a Marlboro-Light-garden-gnome, a fag-breast-chair and so on.

The message of these works is clearly autobiographical. Lucas's breast-chair has predictable things to say about the role of domestic woman as apiece of furniture, a thing to be sat on; by covering the chair in a layer of cigarettes, the artist presumably means to explain the link between the eternal drudgery of women and their desire to kill themselves slowly with fags. Her life vest, which doubles as a pair of breasts, says much the same kind of thing about the effect on women as sexualised objects. The fact that the vest needs to be inflated reminds you of smokerly things such as dodgy lungs and shortness of breath: Lucas's inflatable cuirass is not so much a life vest as a death vest.

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