Known for her irreverent and humorous art, Sarah Lucas has been selected to represent Britain with a major solo show at the 56th Venice International Art Biennale. The British Council's Richard Riley, who curated the exhibition, explains why it will be a talking point.
How did Lucas begin her career?
Sarah Lucas is London-born and studied at Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s, so she's of the same generation of students and young artists who came out of Goldsmiths in the late 1980s to early 1990s, which would include Damien Hirst. Sarah is one of that group of artists who were shown in a series of group shows, famously one that was organised by the students themselves when they were still at Goldsmiths, known as Freeze. It was in a disused building in London's Docklands in 1988. Although probably not that many people saw that exhibition, it's the springboard that everybody thinks of for when that generation of Young British Artists – still students most of them – took the art world by storm. They were irreverent and made powerful, knowledgeable work. They understood that there was an international context, but the work was also grounded in what it was to be an artist working in London at the time.
What are some of the defining characteristics of Lucas' work?
Sarah Lucas has an extraordinary ability. This has been referenced in the way that Picasso could take simple objects and create something out of them. Lucas herself can turn the simplest and most mundane of objects into something very powerful. A classic work is 'Bitch' from 1995. It comprises, literally, a found wooden table, a torn t-shirt, two melons and a kipper. And it becomes a woman on all fours. It's funny, provocative, shocking and informed. And yet, it is one of those works that became one of her signature pieces. Lucas has that innate ability to make something very telling and very powerful out of seemingly the most basic of materials.
Her practice is primarily sculpture, but she also made a series of very strong photographic self-portraits. Her work is mainly about issues of gender and sexuality. Although there are references to other artists, and her work is rooted in surrealism, from the beginning, she was recognised pretty quickly as an original, authentic voice. She's made iconic work and created her own language in a way.
What is Sarah Lucas showing in Venice?
For Venice, Sarah Lucas has extended her practice. She has always cast in concrete or plaster or rubber. And for Venice, there is a series of cast works. The first two pieces you see are cast in resin. The work is made with the neo-classical building and the scale and the galleries of the British Pavilion in mind, and she has responded in this quite extraordinary way to the building. Although it's very much a Sarah Lucas exhibition, it will be a surprise even to the people who know her work. Sarah is very aware of the history of the biennale. She is aware of the fact that Moore and Hepworth were showing there in 1948 and 1950, and although her work may seem a far cry from them, there are references.
Why Sarah Lucas and why now?
We tend to think of her as still a young artist, which she is in the nature of her work, but in fact she is an artist mid-generation. She is in her early fifties and has a 25-year career. She is an established figure. Other contemporaries of hers were selected several years ago – Rachel Whiteread was selected 18 years ago and Gary Hume 16 years ago. Sarah could have been selected at any time in that period. It may seem surprising that we've waited for so long and that the committees hadn't selected her before, but I think Sarah herself feels it's no bad thing and that now is a good time. It is about timing. And of course, committees are often reminded of just how good somebody is when there has just been a series of exhibitions before: Sarah had a mid-career retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2013. She had a big show at Tramway in Glasgow. She had a smaller show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and she curated a number of shows in a pop-up space in central London, all around the same time. She had done a couple of shows internationally, as well, one in Mexico and one in Athens. And then, the invitation to Venice came. Sarah Lucas's show will prove to be a talking point.
See a film with Sarah Lucas giving a tour of her show. The show will run from 9 May to 22 November 2015.
You can also see more pictures from the installation and join our visual arts department on Twitter.