Sarah Lucas

Human Toilet Revisited


Not on display

Sarah Lucas born 1962
Digital print on paper
Image: 1580 × 1536 mm
Purchased 1999


Self-portrait photography has been an important element of Lucas's work since the early 1990s, as a medium for presenting an identity which challenges assumptions about gender and role-play. Posing simultaneously as tough and abject, macho but female, she creates an image of defiant femininity. Cigarettes in particular have featured regularly in her work, as a rebel accessory, a phallic stand-in and a means for independence, for 'possessing time in a palpable way, stopping to pause and contemplate … 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.' (Lucas quoted by Kent, p.42.)

In an earlier photograph titled Human Toilet 1996 (private collection) the artist is pictured from above sitting naked on the bowl, her body hidden by the detached toilet tank on her lap. Suggesting that her body is at best a passage-way, at worst a repository for human waste, this image is saved from despair by its formal beauty. Human Toilet Revisited presents the artist on the toilet again, this time with her feet up - her body curled into a ball rather than splayed in her typical open-legged sitting pose - with a burning cigarette in her hand. Uncharacteristically for a Lucas self-portrait the artist has been framed from the side, rather than directly from the front, her usual uncompromising stare at the viewer here replaced by a contemplative look at the ground. This is a rare instance of Lucas seemingly caught in an unguarded moment: a private time crouching on the lavatory (functioning here as a seat rather than a toilet) to smoke and think. In this sensitive image the toilet becomes a refuge from the outside world while the cigarette she smokes takes her into her own space in time.

Large-scale photographic portraiture is traditionally a medium associated with glamour and fame, the public presentation of a proud image. Lucas subverts that genre by presenting herself undergoing a private ritual in an intimate situation which is distinctly un-glamorous and in which she appears vulnerable and 'real'. She follows the precedence of the American artist Nan Goldin (born 1953) whose photographic self-portrait Nan one month after being battered 1984 (Tate P78045) depicts her as abused. The seeming plain-speaking objectivity of Lucas's staged, casual self-image frustrates any attempted voyeurism of her body, negating the traditional elevation and fetishisation of the female body.

Further reading:
Sarah Kent, 'Young at Art', Time Out, October 7-14 1998, pp.38-42
Sensation: Young Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997, pp.114-9
Sarah Lucas, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1996

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2000

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Smoking her `first fag of the day` the artist squats on the toilet. Lucas often uses intimate self-portraits to undermine conventional images of femininity. The toilet is a recurring theme in her work. A social leveller, it functions as a reminder of one of our most basic human needs. Lucas presents cigarettes as another type of need. The idea of smoking as a desire which leads to self-destruction is explored in a number of her works. Uncharacteristically, she doesn''t look directly into the camera, but seems caught off guard; vulnerable rather than defiant.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like