Flicking through a Sarah Lucas catalogue, you can almost hear the distant hubbub of tourists visiting her future retrospective at the Tate Bankside. ‘Hey honey, come see this. It is a whole load of penises arranged over a picture of vegetable soup. Isn’t it great!’ Or, ‘What is that? A T-shirt, stretched over a table, stuffed with melons and hey! There is a kipper nailed to the end. Is she trying to say something about the female form?’ And so it would go. The paying public drifting from room to room, confronted by enlarged photocopies of The Sunday Sport, an old mattress, a cucumber, a Ford Capri and a photograph of a toilet with ‘is Suicide Genetic?’ written in the ceramic bowl, apparently in shit.
Undoubtedly, Lucas is responsible for some of the more brassy images associated with recent British art. Alongside the sculptures, the self-portrait photographs of Lucas eating a banana, Lucas holding a mug of tea, Lucas on her bike, even Lucas sat in an armchair outside a second-hand furniture shop in the Holloway Road, are among her most forceful. None more so than a photograph which first appeared in The Idler magazine in 1995, of Lucas smoking a cigarette. Seemingly, fags form an important part of Lucas’s life and art. Nicotine-related works include Damien Hirst ashtrays sold at The Shop (a joint venture between Lucas and Tracey Emin whereby occasional artworks were sold from a former doctor’s surgery in London’s Bethnal Green Road), a wax cast of the artist’s mouth with fag inserted between gritted teeth, a sculptural arrangement featuring a toilet with a partially flushed cigarette butt, and a cigarette-emblazoned crash helmet displayed on a burnt chair. Furthermore, Chuffing Away To Oblivion (a free-standing room, not unlike a set, covered in nicotine-stained tabloids), and Portable Smoking Area (a chair with an overhead, nicotine-stained box) evoke the intoxicating experience of entering a tar soaked pub. So why is smoking so important to Lucas?
Dazed & Confused: When did you start smoking?
Sarah Lucas: I had my first drag when I was four. I went into the toilet with my mum at this wedding and she left a cigarette burning on the side of the sink, so I had a quick drag. It was really, really horrible. When I was nine, I taught myself to smoke as a way of getting into local youth clubs and some boys’ clubs where you were supposed to be 12 to get in. I used to wear really high shoes, and really long skirts or trousers to cover up my shoes, and smoke a fag. When I was 13 I got my first job, which meant I had the money to start smoking completely regularly.
GM: How many do you smoke a day?
SL: Around a pack a day, maybe more. It depends. If I’m not too frantic with work and stay at home, about ten a day. But if I’m out all night drinking, then I more than make up for it.
GM: When you use cigarettes in your work, does the reason for using them change?
SL: I use cigarettes in each piece for a different reason, but they touch upon some of the more general themes in my work.
GM: Is it important what brand of cigarette you use?
SL: I generally use Marlboro Lights, because that’s what I smoke. There’s no more significant purpose beyond that.
GM: How did you happen to start using cigarettes in your work?
SL: Initially I thought the sheer enormity of cigarettes I use in my work might help me stop smoking. I’ve always thought smokers have their own reasons for stopping. My mum always says, ‘drink a lot of orange juice’ or ‘have a day off smoking’, which is all very well but I think everyone has to find his or her own reason to stop. My own reason, or theory, for stopping is out there somewhere. I just haven’t hit upon it yet.
GM: Whenever you look at a photograph of a woman smoking, do you think she’s telling the cameraman where to stick his lens?
SL: I suppose women smoking does seem quite aggressive, quite tough. You see a lot more women than men smoking these days, and a lot of working class women. When you see people with a fag dangling from just one lip – sitting in the launderette or hanging around council estates – it’s not so much a ‘Fuck you!’ thing, so much as you sense there’s something hopeless about their life. The idea that it might actually be healthy to give up smoking becomes redundant in such a harsh environment.
GM: What do mean by ‘hopeless’?
SL: There are times when you really don’t care about giving up smoking. If you’re in the throes of some emotional situation or your life’s going wrong in some way, the last thing you really care about is whether you get cancer next week. It’s only when your life is good that you start to care about things. I’ve often thought that if I was to win the Lottery or Pools – I used to do the Pools at one time – I’d give up smoking. It would be so easy. You’d just book yourself into a health farm for a couple of weeks, then ponce about in immaculate clothes and be clean all the time. I have this thing about biting my nails, but if I were rich I’d have immaculate nails. It is sort of hopeless when you see people with hardly any money smoking when they could go out and buy themselves something decent to eat, or go to the pictures, or something. Then again, smoking is one of their few pleasures.
GM: When you see people smoking, do you see them as appropriating the world through a process of continuous destruction?
SL: I definitely think it’s about consuming, but it’s also about possessing time in a palpable way. Whenever I stop smoking, even for a day, one of the things I hate is the amount of nebulous time I have on my hands. Suddenly, I have all the time in the world, but nothing to mark it with.
GM: Do you see smoking as a way of killing time?
SL: More like murdering time.
GM: Do you think cigarettes transport the smoker into a state outside the course of everyday time that runs its tedious blue ribbon to Infinity?
SL: I sometimes wonder why, when you’re on drugs or drinking down the pub, you tend to smoke like a trooper. You wonder if it’s because there’s some part of you that’s actually dying to get to the end of the situation, or whether you’re trying to make more time. I don’t think it’s a race towards the end. I think it’s a case of trying to cram more in while you’ve got the chance – making hay while the sun shines.
GM: Do you miss being able to smoke pretty much anywhere?
SL: It’s a real shame they stopped people smoking in the cinema, and on the bus. The upstairs back seat on a London bus was perfect for smoking. It was luxurious. But smoking in the cinema … just seeing the smoke hanging in the air, in the light, was fantastic. I definitely miss that.
GM: Have you ever noticed how it is impossible for a still camera to capture the fiery heart at the end of a cigarette any more than it can shoot the sun, except under certain highly technical conditions?
SL: Unless it’s dark, maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. But I love that picture of Damien in The Idler where he’s lighting a cigarette and the whole thing goes up in flames. It doesn’t even look like a cigarette any more.
GM: Why do you think so many artists smoke?
SL: I think it’s because they’re bloody bad kids in the first place and they got started early. Maybe it’s something to do with stopping to pause and contemplate what you’re working on, which can be more addictive than smoking itself. It seems as though there must be a higher proportion of artists who smoke than any other community. Well, I’m not sure about that. There’s probably others… winos, for instance.
GM: Recent evidence suggests that smoking aids concentration.
SL: I read this brilliant thing in the ‘Your Health’ section of The Guardian recently. Julian Bream was asked ‘What do you indulge in that’s bad for your health?’ He replied saying all the old vices, that he smokes and drinks too much but enjoys life to the full. What really interested me was whenever he tried to give up smoking, it made his nails go soft. According to him anyway, smoking hardens your nails. That seemed to me to be a pretty viable reason to continue smoking. Especially if you happen to be a classical guitar player.
GM: Do you equate smoking with doing nothing?
SL: Well, there’s a difference between smoking and doing nothing. If you take a photograph of someone doing nothing, you don’t get any real sense of him or her doing nothing. But if you take a photograph of someone smoking, you sense they’re actually doing nothing enough to have time to smoke. It’s like photographing someone having a cup of tea; it’s the same thing. You think to yourself, ‘I can do absolutely nothing and take a photo that represents me doing nothing: but it never does. It always works much better when I’ve got a cup of tea there, or a cigarette.
GM: Why represent yourself doing nothing?
SL: Because otherwise you represent yourself making a gesture about something in particular. For instance, when you’re at Art College you see a whole load of people making Cubist paintings and you think ‘Why?’ Sometimes people feel they need to adopt a style, but they don’t. There will be a style in all case. So, even when you think you’re doing nothing, it doesn’t mean to say that there’s nothing in your demeanor, which is not evocative or recognisable to anyone else. It’s all about avoiding trite points.
GM: Do you see health as being a key Issue In your work?
SL: Health? Hell no! [Laughter]
GM: But don’t you think a work such as ‘Chuffing Away To Oblivion’ represents an extremely unhealthy space?
SL: Yeah, but it isn’t the point that the space is unhealthy. Originally, ‘Chuffing Away’ was based on the idea of a pub. I like pubs. I’ve always liked going into The French House in the afternoon and how you can walk in off the street and all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Once inside, everything is completely traditional in a reassuring way. Then you suddenly run out of fags and think, ‘I know, I’ll nip to the shop next door’. Suddenly the sun hits you and you realise what you’ve been up to for the last few hours. It’s really important to have areas of your life – whether it’s walking into a pub or smoking – where you suddenly feel you’ve found your own time zone. There’s something about that whole timeless quality that’s essential to making Art. To actually get anywhere with it, you have to be prepared to suspend time. To have time on a piece of elastic is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s totally important if you want to do anything worthwhile.
GM: Recently, you took 20 self-portrait photographs and covered them with paint. An act of self-destruction?
SL: When I was initially making those portraits I put them up on the wall and they scared me. I sometimes think that everything you make comes true in a weird way.
GM: In other words, to destroy a self-portrait is to destroy yourself.
SL: Maybe, to invite it in, yeah. It was worrying me. I thought, ‘God! Is this something I really want to put up in public?’ I wasn’t scared to go through with it in the end, which feels like a big step forward.
GM: There seems to be an air of vulnerability surrounding the recent work. Is Suicide Genetic? The spherical cage. The skull. The cardboard coffin. I mean this is potentially dark stuff. Then again, maybe it’s more about a moment out of time. I guess smoking cigarettes allows you to entertain a certain amount of death-defying freedom.
SL: Yeah, and that sense of what you were talking about earlier, people using cigarettes as a smoke-screen between them and the world, or them and the camera. However, it’s also possible that this smoke screen operates both ways. It’s not just that you’re putting up a screen so that people don’t look at you; it also operates so that you don’t look at things while you’re smoking.
GM: In other words, all you see is your own smoke.
SL: Yes. You just assume you’re behind it, which is precisely what ‘Chuffing Away To Oblivion is all about. The wall-to-wall tabloid newspapers represent life’s dross. As the walls become more and more yellow – as they do in any pub worth its salt – the nicotine gradually covers the newsprint. If you smoked in there long enough you wouldn’t be able to see the dross anymore. Maybe that’ll be the next thing to make, a whole bunch of people in a pub completely covered in tar. Antony Gormley-type figures, you know, the same colour as the walls.
This interview appeared in Dazed & Confused in July 1997.