Sarah Lucas: Dame Zero at Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

By Tristen Harwood

Sarah Lucas, Dame Zero, 2018 (installation view). Photo: Omar Luis Olguín. Courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City

A crumpled car wreck – the vehicle’s body mangled and engine spewing forth –occupies the centre of Kurimanzutto. Sarah Lucas has decorated the panels of EPITAPH BLAH BLAH (all works 2018) with cigarettes, which like the wreck are a reminder of consumption and mortality. They are placed end-to-end, in such a way that the patterns created by their orange filters and white papers recalls the Huichol beadwork that adorns calaveras (the replica skulls, often placed on altars during the Day of the Dead.)

Cigarettes, and implicitly the act of smoking them, are a motif in Lucas’s oeuvre and in this exhibition. While her work often draws on and subverts smoking’s historic relation to hegemonic masculinity, in the high altitude and ozone levels of Mexico City the relations between smoking, death, respiration and air quality become more pronounced. CO-YO-TE-COJO (lame coyote), the title of which makes reference to the ‘coyotes’ (as they are colloquially termed) who smuggle people across the Mexico–US border, is a replica pre-Hispanic sculpture carved from cantera (volcanic stone) and covered with cigarettes. This and the similarly canine HIJOS DE LA CHINGADA, which is plastered with feathers, share a semblance of syncretism, co-opting an indigenous artefact and shrouding it with cigarettes, a symbol of global capitalism.

The provocatively titled HIJOS DE LA CHINGADA, a phrase Octavio Paz turns over in ‘The Sons of La Malinche’, the fourth part of The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), means, among other things, ‘son of a bitch’. Paz’s essay is known for its complex (if problematic) analysis of la Chingada, the mythical suffering mother of Mexican peoples for whom ‘passivity is abject: she does not resist violence, but is an inert heap of bones, blood and dust’. Lucas’s sculpture, while attempting to satirise the characterisation of la Chingada, doesn’t escape the gendered violence of its title. 

RED SKY, a photographic series of seven self-portraits, is subtler. Each is set to a red background, with Lucas, wearing a colourful striped sweater, semiobscured by chiffonlike plumes of cigarette smoke. The smoke clouds, red background and white, blue, green and grey stripes of the sweater allude to Gerardo ‘Dr. Atl’ Murillo’s painting Red Volcano (c. 1921–23), which uses a similar composition to depict a smouldering Mexican volcano. The reference expresses a desire to incorporate symbols from a foreign culture that can be made personally meaningful. In all, Lucas’s deployment of distinctly Mexican objects and phrases seems like a glib restatement of her work for a Mexican context, rather than sustained engagement with the local conditions. 

Sarah Lucas: Dame Zero at Kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 17 March – 3 May

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia