Larissa Pham’s new monthly column, Devil in the Details, will focus on single objects throughout art history. In this installment, she looks at beds through the lens of Sarah Lucas’s exhibition “Au Naturel,” currently on view at the New Museum in New York City.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in bed lately—partly because I have been a little depressed; partly because I have been jet-lagged and therefore awake for every sunrise of the last four weeks; partly because all the beds I’ve found myself in lately are so big they seem to take up the entirety of the room, like a ship so large it becomes an island, and the rest of the map not worth exploring. There’s not much to do in bed, and yet you can do everything there. A bed can come to contain everything. Whenever I change my sheets, I am startled to encounter the ghost of me so deeply impressed on my mattress, where for five years I’ve only ever slept on one side. A me-size shadow of sweat, surrounded by little archipelagoes of period blood and chalky haloes of come. I can still recall a post that was popular in certain corners of sad-girl Tumblr, probably almost a decade ago; it was a photograph of a mattress, quilted and faded sateen, and spray-painted. It said PEOPLE FELL IN LOVE ON ME. Once, when an ex really missed me, he told me he wanted to send me a photo of the bloodstain I’d left on his mattress years earlier.
When love is good, it’s like a Toulouse-Lautrec. You know the one—Le Lit. “In Bed.” All of life a haze of oil pastel. Everything thickly colored, rendered in tenderness, bright lines on toned paper. Two figures in bed, their shining faces turned toward each other in a warm room. When love is trying its best, it’s the Laura Owens rendering of the same drawing, from 2000, where the warm tones have been replaced with a stark wash of greenish blue, and the lovers’ heads peep out, barely defined—their eyelashes and mouths described with delicate lines.
When love is sexual, it’s a bed like Tracey Emin’s tent, in which the names of everyone she’d ever slept with were embroidered and sewn to the inside, though not all the names Emin used were of sexual partners, and not every sexual partner is necessarily a partner one has loved. When love contains dirty sex, and not without humor—and not without abjection—it’s a Sarah Lucas, as in her 1994 sculpture Au Naturel. A yellowing mattress, worn and tufted, sags against the wall like a college student’s futon. Out of two gashes in the fabric pop yellow melons—plump, cartoony breasts, tucked in like babies in the pouch of a kangaroo. For a vagina, there’s an old metal bucket, facing out, and on the right half of the bed, playing the role of the other lover in this odd couple, are two oranges and a cucumber, thrusting upward.
There’s a line in A Sport and a Pastime, the James Salter novel, in which the act of penetration is described as such: “It sinks like an iron bar into water.” My roommate, misremembering the wording, once quoted it back to me as, “Like a crowbar into a bucket of water.” We doubled over laughing, imagining the bathos of such a moment—the crude phallus of a crowbar splashing into the wide cavity of a bucket, hitting the bottom with a thunk. Yet it’s precisely this kind of sex that Lucas conjures in Au Naturel—funny, abject, and real. The sculpture features a real cucumber. Melons and a bucket. You can’t help but think of the word hole. But the body is funny. It’s what we have. It’s what we are.
Now on view at the New Museum, a monumental Sarah Lucas retrospective of the same name—“Au Naturel”—fills three floors of the space with her playful, lewd, and sometimes sinister work, which spans from sculpture to photography. Every shape in the world has another meaning, because everything looks like everything. This is where Lucas’s work turns its key. Lucas is an assemblage artist, not a fabricator; in her work, all objects—toilets, wardrobes, pool tables, washing machines, and, yes, mattresses—are fair game. A toilet bowl, rendered in slumped resin, seems to ooze into the floor; lemons, poking out of a ribbed white tank top, serve as crude breasts, while a chicken carcass dangles below, the whole thing affixed to a metal mattress-spring frame. Cars are covered in cigarettes, the rounded edges of which render that particular symbol of macho Americana surprisingly, perhaps unintentionally, cute.
The show is a cornucopia of fruits and cucumbers and, particularly, eggs, in a number of unholy configurations, including smashed against walls and served sunny-side up. The mundane organic objects remind us that everything fucks, that sex isn’t special or sacred but positively quotidian. You think rut. You think screw. The materials remain recognizable, but they’re transformed in startling ways, as in Lucas’s Bunnies series of soft sculptures. An accidental discovery made while Lucas was stuffing pantyhose, the Bunnies are provocatively draped over chairs, “legs” lolling open wide and often clad in stockings themselves, in the stance of a woman in a window gesturing come hither. In a series of close-up photographs on view, two Bunnies do it, or appear to. (What else do bunnies do?) They’re engaged in a mimicry of physical intimacy, their stuffed limbs entwined and splayed. As sculptures, they have a haunting presence, roughly about as human as a blow-up doll, and about the same scale, but more vulnerable.
Everyday objects carry associations. Our lives rubs off on them; they become part of its fabric. It’s why Sarah Lucas’s sculptures feel so powerful: the new meaning of the art object exists side by side with the old. Walking through “Au Naturel,” one gets the sense that upon arriving in a new city to complete a commission, Lucas immediately makes a trip to the hardware and grocery stores. In a piece originally created for a show at the Freud Museum, in London, and inspired by Freud’s essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” a red futon mattress is suspended by one corner from a garment rack, impaled with a fluorescent tube light. Two light-bulb tits dangle from a clothes hanger in a way that immediately conveys a human frame. Flopped over the fluorescent tube is another pair of light-bulb breasts, these the size of Au Naturel’s yellow melons. In a metal bucket—a recurring motif—there is a small, warm, orange incandescent, a glowing clit. When I saw the piece in the New Museum I laughed aloud, startled. I had once kept a little red futon in my own studio.
For years now, my friend Emily has photographed mattresses she encounters on the street, posting the pictures on Instagram. WE FOUND LOVE IN A HOPELESS PLACE, the caption reads on the first ones, uniting the images in a series. People fell in love on me. We found love here. We found love. The mattresses slouch against garage doors, lie on sidewalks, lean against trees, their bulky rectangular silhouettes sagging and creaking into something soft and animate, a formal quality you can’t appreciate when you see a mattress merely as a bed. Some are graffitied, some are bare, some are quilted. My favorites have a floral print. They’re never new—they all show signs of the lives that have been lived on them. As a series, they’re at turns nostalgic, gross, joyful, elegiac.
Of course a mattress is shorthand for bed, which is shorthand for being on your back, but a mattress is more than that—it’s an accumulation, like the seep of the last five years that’s settled under me while I slept. One-night stands, best-friend sleepovers, serious relationships. Insomniac nights and depression naps. Tracey Emin knew this, about beds—that they accumulate. In possibly her most famous piece, My Bed, Emin, a contemporary of Lucas’s, offered just that: her bed, caked in mess. The accretion of a weeks-long depressive episode, punctuated with used condoms, stained underwear, slippers and cigarettes and trash. Though I’ve only ever seen the work in photographs, I can imagine its presence—the musty, slightly sour smell of unwashed sheets; the ferrous odor of old blood. Emin’s bed wasn’t just a bed—it was a narrative, an emotional and psychological episode written on a physical surface. Lately, persistently sleepless, I lie in my own bed—my sheets need a wash, too—and think about Emin’s bed, about her body feeling its own weight, making its imprint on the mattress.
Lucas’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle is perhaps more about death than it is about sex. Freud’s essay posited the existence of a “death drive,” equal in power to the will to survive. Beneath the red futon, a white cardboard coffin peeks out, like the skull grinning in the background of a memento mori. From its cracked-open lid emanates a soft white light. The mattress, suspended, slopes between the poles of birth and death, its form sagging in the middle, a crumple of soft textures. Manipulated in this way, the futon feels more like a body than the support for a body. It looks like a torso, an abdomen, strung up and naked. The red fabric, the muddied maroon of dried blood, drives the viscerality of the piece home—it’s offal red. Menstrual-blood red.
We’re born in beds, conceived in them, die in them. We read in bed, eat in bed, fall in love and fall out of it in bed. For the most part, our beds are private spaces. Only I see the stains on the mattress: the indelicate underbelly of the life I conduct atop it. To refer to this intrinsic state of the mattress and use it in sculpture—whether abandoned on the street or on display in the New Museum—is to reveal the messy, abject, dirty realities of our lives. And to revel in them. Death is near, but so is life, and so richly: the fabric teems with it. Imagine taking Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit and flipping over the mattress, pulling aside the sheets to expose a love affair’s private contours. Map of movements and secretions. No longer idealized, but instead the evidence of what was had and what was true. People fell in love here.
Last week, I was in Shanghai. I was put up in a nice hotel, and the room had an enormous bed—a bed so wide it could sleep a whole family comfortably. The sheets were pure white, and crisp, and I left one side tucked in—I didn’t need all the space, and I liked the feeling of being tightly wrapped in the sheets. My first night there, alone in a city I’d never been to, the bed didn’t feel like my bed. But as my trip went on, my sleep schedule shifted. I awoke at three, stayed up until six, seven, eight in the morning. I tossed and turned, I scrolled restlessly through my phone, I shed hairs on the pillow, I drooled a puddle in an afternoon sleep. By the last day, there was something of me there, in the crumpled pillows, the indentation in the sheets—some trace of my experience, of my body’s pressure against itself. There was a life. I had left it.
“Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel” will be on view at the New Museum until January 20, 2019.
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.