Sarah Lucas

Is Suicide Genetic?


Not on display

Sarah Lucas born 1962
Photograph, colour, on paper
Image: 500 × 400 mm
Purchased 1998


Lucas is fascinated by the paradoxically co-existing drives towards both sex and death described by Sigmund Freud in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Is Suicide Genetic? is one of several works with the same title. Part of Lucas's impetus in making these works is a realisation of the mixture of self-destructiveness and pleasure that habits such as smoking involve. (Freud himself died of a smoking-related disease in 1939.) Cigarettes and smoking have been important elements in Lucas's work, often featuring in her photographic self-portraits. She showed a partially flushed cigarette butt floating in a toilet as part of a sculptural installation titled One Armed Bandits (Mae West) at South London Gallery in 1995. The following year she had an exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, titled Is Suicide Genetic?. Here she exhibited a functioning toilet in an empty room, and made a sculptural object - a replica of the toilet in the image Is Suicide Genetic? - with the same title. The photograph was used as the image for the invitation to the exhibition. A third piece made in the same year, again titled Is Suicide Genetic? (private collection), consists of a motor-cycle helmet made of cigarettes, meticulously glued together, which is laid on the seat of a burnt-out chinz armchair. She has subsequently exhibited burnt out cars and cars with smashed windows, giving the issue of self-inflicted violence a broader social context through the implicit reference to acts of vandalism.

For me my work is about me. So things that could make me feel vulnerable, or maybe I worry about - I hopefully can turn them into something that I don't have to be running away from. And that makes me feel stronger and therefore I can face the world … it's partly a conversation I'm having with myself. But if I just had it in my head it would disappear. It's a way of literally objectifying it, so that the conversation can carry on.
(Quoted in Art from the UK, p.135.)

Toilets are also a recurring Lucas theme. The Old In Out (Tate T07513) is a toilet cast in resin. Human Toilet (1996) is a photograph of the artist sandwiched between the bowl and cistern of a toilet; in Human Toilet Revisited 1998 (Tate P78299) she sits on the toilet smoking a cigarette. Lucas has said that she is surprised 'just how self-destructive people are' (unpublished conversation with the author, 14th March 2000). In Is Suicide Genetic? the words inside the toilet bowl hint at more immediate and even violent forms of self-destruction than the slow, suffocating burn-out effects of smoking. However the issue is the same. In our media-fed culture which idealises happiness and good health as the norm, Lucas's question stands out as a sharp reminder of the struggle with darker needs and desires which lead to so much physical, as well as psychological, self-destruction.

Further reading:
Lynn Barber, 'Drag Queen', Observer Magazine, London, 30 January 2000, pp.10-16
Art from the UK, Sammlung Goetz, Munich 1997, pp.130-6
Sarah Lucas, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1996

Elizabeth Manchester
August 2000

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