One of my favourite exhibitions of the last few years was Sarah Lucas’ Whitechapel show, described by The Guardian as “Breasts, bums, blokes and their bits.” Naturally, I was thrilled when Sarah was announced as the artist creating the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Like the work of Jeremy Deller, the artist chosen in 2013, Sarah’s art can be messy and funny and fearless. It’s hard to make sense of, and big issues are frequently masked with a wry humour. Britain could be said to be the same; for all our perceived stuffiness, as a nation there’s a gloriously dishevelled side – a bold sense of “why the fuck not,” experimentation and our famed eccentricity which has made such a small place such a big deal when it comes to creativity.
I have no intention of coming across jingoistic or senselessly patriotic – after all it’s the mix of cultures that makes Britain what it is – but when I read more about Sarah’s commission, it got me thinking about what British creativity is, and how we’re showing that to the world. The Venice Biennale piece, entitled I Scream Daddio, once again sees Sarah looking at ideas about “gender and domesticity,” sex and innuendo via a very yellow room full of her signature objects-as-willies-and-vaginas set-ups. If the combination of malady, despair and the undeniable hilariousness of pedestrian objects reconfigured as sex organs doesn’t sum up a very British sensibility, I don’t know what does.
The fact we select to present these often pessimistic, but very bright notions that don’t shy away from a puerile giggle to the world is wonderful. Creativity in Britain doesn’t shy away from the fact things can be shit, but also funny; and that sex itself can be ludicrous and silly. In a sometimes depressing way, it celebrates all of these things, and does so with wit and charm and tenacity. When I think about what modern British creativity means I think of punk: of the cut-and-paste, have-a-go, authority-challenging aesthetic of creatives across the disciplines – Jamie Reid, David Hockney, Mike Leigh, Tracey Emin, Vivienne Westwood – and they’re just the big names, the ones my mum might know.
I think no matter what the field or how the work is executed, British artists have a way of sticking two fingers up at established ideas and people, even if they do so subtly. As with Sarah’s work in Venice, it’s about using creativity to challenge what’s going on in the world, and holding a mirror up to it. I’m not saying by any means this is an exclusively British MO, but I think choosing Sarah Lucas and her penises and big toilet vaginas and messy forms for the British Pavilion to show what British art can do and say feels very, very fitting.
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