Swearing, shopping, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas
It may have only lasted six months, but Sarah Lucas’s ‘90’s retail venture still resonates, a quarter century later
Imagine a small shop in London, that not only stocked affordable works by two blue-chip British artists, but was also staffed by them. Business would be, it seems fair to assume, brisk. However, a quarter century ago, when Sarah Lucas and another soon-to-be big name in the art world opened up on an East London high street, they found themselves in a very different retail environment.
“In 1993, Sarah Lucas and artist Tracey Emin created The Shop, a store and installation that ran for six months,” explains the New Museum curator Margot Norton in Sarah Lucas Au Naturel, which serves as the catalogue for the New Museum’s show of the same name. “Here, the duo made and sold solo and collaborative work ranging from pins, badges, and T-shirts (with slogans such as 'She’s kebab' and 'Complete arsehole') to a chicken-wire altarpiece dedicated to British painter David Hockney.”
Does that sound a little two high concept to thrive on the high street? Well, fine art wasn’t exactly at the forefront of Lucas’s mind.
“I was sitting in an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane [East London] one day with Tracey, and I had just moved out of the studio with Gary [Hulme], because I didn’t really use it and things had gotten a bit tricky with us, and I thought, Well, I’ll just work at home, then,” she explains to Massimiliano Gioni in our new book. “And as soon as I made that decision, I thought, I’m going to get bored knocking about here on my own.”
Fortunately, her friend came to the rescue. “I was talking to Tracey at lunch about maybe getting a studio together, and one of us came up with the idea to get a shop,” Lucas goes on. “It was probably her, as she’s very canny about business. We went around looking at what was empty and got a shop for six months. We started with absolutely nothing, with no particular idea. There were other things going on at the time: artists running galleries, using empty shops or big warehouses... The Shop wasn’t really premeditated: we just did it.”
This stretch of East London where Emin and Lucas opened up is now filled with bars, boutiques and galleries today, but 25 years ago, it was way less fashionable, and the artists could only partially rely on walk-up trade.
“People just came in off the street,” Lucas recalls. “Of course there were friends, people from the art world, but also just people walking by. Everything was affordable, some things were really cheap. On Saturday nights we used to stay open all night, and Brick Lane was one of the few all night places then. It was interesting because we started with nothing whatsoever, and nobody knew we were doing it. And in the space of six months, people were coming by. [German gallerist] Max Hetzler, I still remember, came by at three in the morning. So it just took off, I suppose.”
However, Emin and Lucas’s own fine-art careers were taking off too, and soon they found themselves showing their works in better-appointed central London galleries, which commanded higher prices. Yet The Shop stands as a reminder of how Lucas, who came from a modest background in London and still engages with cornershop vices – cigarettes, canned beer, tabloid newspapers, pornography – and still, all these years later, seems quite at home on Britain’s high streets.
For more Sarah Lucas’s art, life and outlook order a copy of Sarah Lucas Au Naturel here.