Review: Sarah Lucas at the Venice Biennale

Work of artist Sarah Lucas for the 56 Venice Biennale 2015 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The work exhibited by Sarah Lucas includes several plaster sculptures cast from the lower torso of the artist and her female friends

The Venice Biennale reflects the best and worst of us.

On the one hand, there are the most amazing examples of what the human imagination can achieve. You are surrounded by great beauty and great art.

On the other, there is the crass vulgarity and jaw-dropping insensitivity of the art world's high-rollers and super-rich consumers enjoying an event that purports to be about All The World's Futures but is, in fact, about as detached from reality as it is possible to be.

Into this strange environment step hundreds of artists from across the globe, representing their countries in pop-up venues and national pavilions dotted across the Venetian landscape.

Sarah Lucas is here representing Britain. The onetime ladette of the YBA movement is now a 50-something woman living quietly in rural Suffolk. Her reputation is based on a body of work produced over the last 25 years that is often lewd, crude and extremely rude. Visual puns alluding to male and female genitalia have been a perennial favourite.

And they still are. The rather grand British Pavilion, which sits regally at the end of a tree-lined avenue in the Giardini Gardens, has been given the full Sarah Lucas treatment.

It starts in the portico, which she has adorned with a fourteen-and-a-half foot phallus, bolt upright and painted bright yellow. If, for some inexplicable reason, you failed to notice the giant sculpture, there's a near identical version in the first room you enter.

"I don't think it's an offensive or rude show particularly. We've all got bodies," Lucas tells me, while sitting on a washing machine that resembles a fried egg.

"They're a lot of strange taboos we all live under the influence of, without thinking very much about. I suppose the thing that tickles me is to present some of those strange areas and to open them up to the sunshine a bit."

Image copyright Getty Images

The sunshine comes in the form of an all-yellow colour scheme covering all the walls and doorways. "I had to get eggs in there somewhere," she says, alluding to one of her favourite motifs.

The pervasive yellow is broken up by a series of plaster sculptures that have been cast from the lower torso of Lucas and several of her female friends. One sits across an upended toilet bowl, another lies back on an old desk. In all instances the legs are parted to reveal an orifice or two, into which the artist has delicately placed an unlit cigarette. She describes the intervention as a "Chauceresque gesture".

Anyone who knows Sarah Lucas's oeuvre will be familiar with her aesthetic and sense of humour. Some love it; others do not. The Times art critic, Rachel Campbell-Johnston described the exhibition as "embarrassing". While one late middle-aged woman with an American accent left the show extolling its virtues and asking if she could buy some of the work.

Whatever your opinion, the show demands your attention. It is also more subtle than you might initially think. The work, which is made with love and care, is really more about friendship, collaboration, and joy. Sarah Lucas is celebrating her past, not trying to avoid it.

Sarah Lucas' British Council commission is at the Venice Biennale from 9 May until 22 November.