Exhibition Guide

Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas

Find out more about our exhibition at Tate Britain

Seated Sarah Lucas sculpture wearing pink platform boots on a square orange plinth

Sarah Lucas HONEY PIE 2020 Collection Frank Gallipoli © Sarah Lucas. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ. Photo: Robert Glowacki.

I decided to hang the exhibition mainly on chairs. Much in the same way I hang sculptures onto chairs, which means the chair becomes an integral part of the work. The character of the chair lends mood and meaning to the sculpture. The progression of chair sculptures through the years adds up to a world populated by these characters.

Sarah Lucas

Content guidance

This webpage contains explicit language and references sexual activity.


Since 1990, Sarah Lucas has been making art that distorts everyday life. The expressiveness of ordinary things is coaxed out, or just noticed and pointed at. In this exhibition, a banana, lightbulbs, concrete, fish, a car, tights, chairs, tabloid newspapers and cigarettes are used to explore the human condition. Mischievously and honestly, Lucas asks universal questions about our origins, sex, class, happiness and mortality.

Lucas’s strange, familiar and funny forms are deeply personal. HAPPY GAS is also narrated entirely in her own voice. Yet the familiar themes and images in her work could be about any of us. The exhibition tells a fuller story than the 1990s Young British Art scene that Lucas is so often associated with. Through self-portraits, a young Lucas and the now 60-year-old artist look at each other’s work. We see reminiscence, social comment, family, childhood and collaborative friendship running through almost 35 years of making art.

Lucas has always challenged the conventions of photography, sculpture and collage through her choice of subjects and materials. What might appear rough or casual is in fact a careful manipulation of materials, words and her own image. In the exhibition, she creates a mood of grit, shock and play, regularly punctuated by the darkness and pleasure of sex, smoking and food. Lucas’s subversion of social realism points to what is both laughable and demeaning about class and gender stereotypes. Too many limbs, no heads, explicit metaphors and huge food give this realism a magical quality, creating a defiant, joyful and vital atmosphere.

Room 1

I love conversation, banter and reading. But everything is language, including objects. There’s an infinity of “stuff”. How to invest any of it with meaning?

Sarah Lucas

I didn’t set out to be autobiographical really. In fact I saw, and see, art as a way of having an objective look at something. Though now that I have a lot of works behind me, I can see that they inevitably tell a story, in their way. And of course they are much more personal than I perhaps thought they were at the time of making. It is never an easy thing to see ourselves though, is it?

Sarah Lucas

We were a sprawling body of kids. Different ages, sizes, and abilities, out on the street most of the time amusing ourselves. A lot of swearing went on. Swearing that was in a way in advance of understanding what the words meant. It was understood of course that they were insulting and funny. And it dawned gradually that some were worse than others, and that some weren’t even funny – although they still were when aimed with precision or ejaculated unexpectedly.

Sarah Lucas


Language is a central material or tool within Lucas’s practice. We see this in the playful titles she gives to her works, which are critical to their meaning. Within the artworks themselves, we find newspaper headlines, swearing, jokes and puns, casual phrases and offensive slurs. Lucas mixes up these things, juxtaposing them with images and objects to shift their effects and meanings. Offensive language experienced by many of us is reflected back to us all in a formal gallery setting. In pointing to such experiences, we are invited to think about them differently.

Casual or everyday language is still not often part of the description of contemporary art. Lucas tells stories and anecdotes to describe her work, cutting through the formal language often used in art galleries. Her everyday language (which forms the narrative of this exhibition) is humorous and accessible, but inflected with a feminist edge as it subverts patriarchal traditions of writing about art.

Lucas’s exhibition title HAPPY GAS – a reference to nitrous oxide – could be part of a newspaper headline about anti-social behaviour in 2023 Britain. Political promises to ban the sale and recreational use of the drug form many anxious stories in the British press. HAPPY GAS is also reminiscent of NHS labour wards and dental extractions – like many aspects of Lucas’s work linking to her use of very British motifs and references.


Portraiture is a core part of Lucas’s practice. She uses her own image again and again, which we can see throughout HAPPY GAS. Some images are presented as wallpapers that consume whole gallery spaces, such as Eating a Banana 1990 and Smoking 1998, as well as the more recent Red Sky series from 2018 in the final room of the show. Although these photos could be read as self-portraits – they are indeed photographs of the artist – they are also always impromptu collaborations with the photographers. They appear simultaneously staged and unposed. The same objects reappear: bananas, salmon, skulls, cigarettes and toilets. By continuously presenting her own image alongside these objects and motifs, Lucas creates a unique visual language which she uses to challenge stereotypical notions of identity and gender. This reuse reinforces the connotations Lucas imbues in the objects, creating a readymade vocabulary of imagery for her to draw upon.

It was significant that I put my own image into the work from the outset. Although, at the time, it wasn’t important to me that it was my own image. I just happened to be handy. It gave me, in the eyes of other people, a voice or attitude within the work. This has been a constant presence since, but, in fact, I return to making self-portraits only rarely.

Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas
Eating a Banana (1990)

Room 2

The purpose of chairs (in the world) is to accommodate the human body sitting. They can be turned to other purposes. Generally as a support for an action or object. Changing light bulbs. Propping open a door. Posing. Sex.

Sarah Lucas

My own, sculptural, purposes are not different. I use them as chairs for bodies, sometimes parts of bodies and also as stand-ins for bodies on occasion. Car seats, when glanced at through a windscreen – and particularly when they have head rests attached – can look like a couple of bodies, I think. Seen while passing from the corner of the eye. Even empty chairs are implying a body. It’s their meaning. Individual chairs have their own character too.

Sarah Lucas

I’ve been making Bunnies for a long while. The first one from the mid 1990s is in this show. I’m not constantly making them but it’s something I’ve returned to from time to time and they’ve evolved over the years. It struck me, quite recently, that they’re mostly very thin. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I had a sudden urge to make some fleshy ones. It must be a combination of the fleshiness and the saggy tits that make them appear old to you. The latter probably. It turns out, surprisingly you may think, that a saggy tit is very expressive.

Sarah Lucas


As part of a long commitment to readily available materials, Lucas uses tights filled with stuffing to make soft sculptures. Associated with sex and femininity, tights have an enduring appeal to her, first appearing in her work in 1993. They form a body with a pair of lightbulb breasts, the stuffing evoking marbled fat and blood vessels. Hems and seams make nipples and labia. Lucas often pairs the fragility of sheer nylon with solid, heavy or rough materials. Her structures might be limbs or breasts, always relating to a body; sometimes exhausted, sometimes excited or performing. Often sitting in a chair, they seem vulnerable and very human.

Stuffing can be kapok, cotton or wool. By now and for a good while it’s usually wool. Initially it was shredded newspaper.

Sarah Lucas

Seated Sarah Lucas sculpture

Sarah Lucas Bunny 1997 Private Collection © Sarah Lucas. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ.


French artist Louise Bourgeois made innovative use of stockings and other textiles to explore memory, trauma and sex. Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee hand worked much tougher fibre to create outsized soft genital sculptures. For many feminist artists, textiles have been a shorthand for ideas and experiences imposed on women, as well as an opportunity to subvert them.


Chairs have been a reoccurring object in Lucas’s practice since 1992 when she created The Old Couple (room 1). She loads these simple, everyday and often found objects with meaning through carefully positioning and adding items to them. The chairs become human, their legs, arms and backs standing in for a figure. In the mid 1990s, Lucas began using chairs with tights and kapok stuffing to create bodily structures, as we can see in Bunny 1997. These ‘figures’ are arranged throughout the exhibition, mostly on plinths, insolently posed for the viewer. In recent years, their lumpy forms have been rendered in different mediums such as bronze.

Plinths have been used throughout museum history to act as a support for a work of art. In this exhibition Lucas uses the plinth to elevate the chair. Textures within the sculptures are highlighted by the various materials and colours used to create the plinths.

Room 3

What I look for in materials is readiness. Something I can get on with in a spontaneous way and just do it myself. It might well be that I’m doing this at home at some odd hour of the day. Often the things that are there aren’t generally credited with being an art material – like tights or cigarettes or an onion. The important thing for me is to be able to act on it there and then.

Sarah Lucas

We all might find ourselves subject to a whole gamut of emotions. The stuff of tragedy and comedy. Of daily grind and boredom. Of living. And I do find myself subject to these things like everybody else and often I feel a tremendous urge to do something with that feeling right away with whatever there is about, even if at first glance it looks like there’s nothing very promising about.

Sarah Lucas

There always is something. And that’s gratifying and often amusing. To express the anxiety or the anger or the joy with an onion or a chair.

Sarah Lucas


Concrete appears in two forms in the exhibition: as plinths the works sit upon, and as sculptural material. Instead of smooth and pristine plinths, Lucas uses concrete breeze blocks to support many of her works. The breeze blocks are not precious or finished: they are basic, practical, uncovered building blocks. The stone exposed in grand museum buildings was traditionally luxurious, like the walls of the Duveen galleries that run through the centre of Tate Britain. It was not until the arrival of modern architecture that cheaper construction materials such as concrete were made visible.

For decades Lucas has created sculptures in concrete, first making a cast of a pair of her own boots in 1999. In this exhibition, you can see a gigantic concrete marrow and a sandwich, as well as a cast of modern furniture design icon, the Eames Chair. Lucas often uses the roughness of concrete to contrast with the delicacy of other materials such as tights and paper.

Image: Sarah Lucas’s Florian and Kevin installed at Aspen Art Museum in 2015.

Image: Sarah Lucas’s Florian and Kevin installed at Aspen Art Museum in 2015.

Artistic Connections

British sculptor Henry Moore also explored this idea of truth to material by making giant works from concrete: a material which is often associated with masculinity. Works by Moore are on display at Tate Britain in a nearby room within the collection displays.

Room 4

There’s no substitute for genitalia in terms of meaningfulness and a bit of edge.

Sarah Lucas

Reasons for making a penis: appropriation, because I don’t have one; voodoo; economics; totemism; they’re a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents; gnomey; because you don’t see them on display much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark.

Sarah Lucas

Funnily enough vaginas seem to shock people more than a penis. Especially the plaster casts of real ones. I’ve seen people approach some of the Muses and, when they’re close enough to get the vagina into focus, about turn and walk away. Which is an experience on a par with or maybe opposite to, finding out the meaning of the word ‘c**t’. I remember, as a child, being quite baffled by this word which I’d heard bandied about a lot and definitely understood enough to know it was out of the question to ever use it in front of adults and was, seemingly, the harshest and worst term of abuse available in four letters. And I had one myself. Shocking.

Sarah Lucas


Cigarettes have featured in Lucas’s work since her 1997 exhibition The Law, and she has gone on to create several series of cigarette-coated objects. In the final room of the exhibition, we see the climax of this theme in This Jaguar’s Going to Heaven 2018. A Jaguar car, covered in cigarettes, is split in two. The action of cutting the car in half is a destructive act. Lucas said, ‘when I first started using cigarettes in art it was because I was wondering why people are selfdestructive. But it’s often destructive things that makes us feel most alive’. Self-portraits of the artist such as Red Sky 2018, displayed as wallpaper here, show her surrounded in an almost ethereal or ghostly cloud of smoke. In her Muses series, she places phallic cigarettes in the orifices of body casts of her friends.

We might also relate cigarettes to the title of the show, HAPPY GAS. Sarah has described her choice of exhibition title as ‘funny and uplifting and a bit sinister too – ambiguous I suppose’. In typical Lucas style, however, she also insists it is merely because she ‘fancied a two-word title’.

Photograph of Sarah Lucas in motion surrounded by swirls of smoke on a red background

Sarah Lucas Red Sky Cah 2018 © Sarah Lucas

Thematic texts by Dominique Heyse-Moore and Amy Emmerson Martin

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