ART NEWSROOM International

Sarah Lucas, 'Hysterical Attack', Freud Museum Study
Beyond the Pleasure Principle

8th March – 18th April 2000

Sarah Lucas’ reputation rests upon witty, suggestive sculptures made out of fruit and discarded furniture. Lucas (born London 1962) is one of the original Goldsmiths College graduates who participated in Damien Hirst’s ‘Freeze’ show in 1988 which is now seen as the event that kick-started the current BritArt phenomenon. Her first solo show in 1992 was called ‘Penis Nailed to a Board’ and this set the tone for work to follow. 

Not surprising then to find this announcement  “Sarah Lucas at the Freud Museum” – the queen of phallic jokes taking up residence in the home of a man who unlocked our sexual subconscious and gave us terms like “penis envy”. Walking through these rooms forever under the gaze of Sigmund we have to entertain the question “What would Freud have made of Miss Lucas?” Would the father of psychoanalysis have spontaneously understood her placement of an eight foot high photograph showing her nipple poking through a ratty t-shirt directly above his sacred, celebrated, couch confessional?Sarah Lucas, photograph of her nipple & Freud's couch

The announcement continued... “In addition to placing new sculptures in the context of the Freud Museum, Lucas will customise the psychoanalyst’s furniture.”

On a chilly, wet Wednesday at noon when most people are thinking about lunch, the Freud Museum was packed out with Freud devotees who had made the pilgrimage from across the globe. The fat guest book bulged with exotic place names like Milwaukee and Melbourne. There were more people crammed into the half a dozen rooms of this twee Hampstead home than Birmingham City Gallery on a good day. Sadly Sarah, it was not you they were coming to see – your work was incidental and from most remarks overheard, rather unwelcome. Cool university students turned their backs on your installations and tried not to collide with your protruding fluorescent tubes as they peered in glass cases full of Freud memorabilia.
You had to compete for attention against a prodigious force. 
Students disregard Sarah Lucas' installation at the Freud Museum
Rather than compete Miss Lucas chose to pay homage. Her exhibition was called “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” the title of  a short book published by Sigmund Freud in 1920. That love and life stand over and against aggression and death, is the fundamental realization explored by Freud in the book. Lucas has visualized this concept by arranging a red mattress suspended from a coat rail and crashing on top of a white cardboard coffin. The mattress is pierced by a long fluorescent tube penis and his female partner has electric light globes for breasts, an orange bulb glowers in the well of a bucket like a living womb and her legs are indicated by long white electric cords dangling to the powerpoint in the floor. The warmth emanating from the globes and the red blood colour of the mattress demonstrate the triumph of life, love, sex over death. Whilst the soft mattress, round globes and triumphant penis are synonymous with pleasure, the presence of the coffin and reminder of death denotes “unpleasure” creating what Freud coined “an unpleasurable tension”. Whilst we can derive pleasure from the work of art we can also receive negative feelings from the viewing experience. What fascinated Freud was that this presence of pleasure and unpleasure does not neccessarily detract from our overall enjoyment of the experience. To go even further, the displeasure element may even be necessary to give the experience balance, to make it exciting. Whether Lucas meant the work to be interpreted this closely to Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” is not clear, but you certainly could read Freud’s theories into this piece bouncing his ideas off her visual sounding board. This particular installation works well in the museum as it is in a sparsely furnished room.

In the downstairs dining room Lucas translates Freud’s plain wooden chairs into bodies by encasing them in stretch underwear, again with light sources for sexual organs. This time a long fluorescent member protrudes from a pair of cotton briefs connecting the male chair/body to the female chair/body elevated on the table. Called “The Pleasure Principle” Lucas alludes solely and wholly to the sex act, leaving metaphors to float around the upstairs piece. Freud gazes down on the dining table from a black and white photograph. “We have all experienced how the greatest pleasure attainable by us, that of the sexual act, is associated with a momentary extinction of  a highly intensified excitation.”, he wrote in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. This would have been a good quote to place next to Lucas’ piece with a switch inviting the viewer to turn off the power and extinguish the hot white tube of sexual heat. For without the throbbing tube, the piece would look quite banal.
Sarah Lucas, The Pleasure Principle at the Freud Museum
Lucas’ other three pieces are situated in Freud’s study where he worked before he died in 1939, less than a year after having escaped Nazi controlled Vienna. Apart from the sumptuous couch with Lucas’ blow-up of her nipple there are two of her trademark gangly legs sculptures. “Hysterical Attack” consists of papier-mâché legs grafted onto the backs of two chairs. One is covered with cut outs of eyes and the other with mouths. Distinctly female, they look like the bottom half of  those anorexics who attend society balls and end up being photographed legs akimbo on a velvet banquette. Lucas has strategically placed five foot high red obelisks near the legs, again introducing the phallus, although one presumes the obelisks are permanent fixtures of Freud’s study. The artist just grabbed what was to hand.

Contemporary art in small historic museums has long been a popular thing with curators. Most often it’s about ‘memory’ with contemporary artists creating works that in some way relate to the actual history of the space. Lucas and Freud is a connection of concepts rather than objects evoking history and if visitors had time to stop heavy breathing over the romance of sepia photographs and tapestry camassars, they might witness how Freudian symbolism can be relevant to art today.

Raichel Le Goff 

FREUD MUSEUM 20 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SX
tel. 0171 435 2002
open after 12pm Wed-Sat. Only
admission charge

Question : Who first dragged a mattress into the arena of an art gallery and called it art? We want to know because they’ve been at it ever since. 

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