A Journey to Mexico With Sarah Lucas, Through the Eyes of Collaborator and Partner Julian Simmons
As Sarah Lucas prepares to represent the UK at the Venice Biennale this spring, so does her partner, photographer Julian Simmons. Since meeting in the early ’90s the pair have become friends, collaborators, and travel companions, which may be best manifested in their 2013 publication TITTIPUSSIDAD. The 648-page tome, filled with photographs, documents their shared experiences during the five weeks they spent together in Mexico in 2012 as Lucas prepared for an exhibition at Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli. Recently, Simmons printed a selection of these photographs to form an exhibition at London’s Paul Stolper Gallery, giving the images—many of which feature Lucas’s iconic “NUD” sculptures—new life. As TITTIPUSSIDAD was resurfaced in this way, we asked the photographer to share insights around the images, the trip to Mexico, and his multivalent relationship with Lucas.
Simmons first met Lucas in London, at ICH—“Islington Community Housing, a co-op of near-derelict houses waiting for an uncertain period before improvement,” as he explains. “The deal was we paid a low rent and kept the places warm and occupied—but might have to move out the next day.” He lived there while working on his BA, developing a computerized drawing mechanism that would lead to his MPhil and PhD studies at the Royal College of Art. He estimates that they met sometime between 1993 and ’95. “I remember getting out of the bath—a shared bath for the whole four-story house—and being locked out of the flat downstairs, so having to knock on Sarah’s door for the front door key. I presume I had a towel on.”
Their working relationship dates to 2007 and 2008, during an influential trip across Scotland and the British North, and as they began living together in Suffolk. It was during this time that Lucas developed her infamous “Penetralia” series, the basis of which is her practice of making casts of erect penises. Simmons recalls a formative moment from this time: “One winter when the heating oil ran out and the oil truck couldn’t get down the iced-up track, we fired up a neglected Rayburn stove in the kitchen, shut the doors, got really hot, stripped off, I slapped my nob on the table, and Sarah started making a mould with plaster bandage.”
The “Early-Man trip,” as Simmons calls it, spurred by shared interests in prehistoric man, was also a pivotal moment in their artistic careers; “We had the shared notion—from William Blake—that the ‘North is the Imagination,’” he explains. The two drove up the west coast of Scotland and hopped across the British Isles (“we ferried over to Orkney, then Shetland, then Yell, then Unst”), all the while living out of the back of Simmons’s ex-Gulf-War LandRover. “Along the way we’d seen a massive cube of butter in an Early-Man museum, hidden and preserved for a few thousand years; here it was, dug-up, more than a foot square ... Sarah has said what most fascinated her at school was Early Man… So along with casts of my nob were broken flints and antler-like branches collected from the fields. This was the body of work which became the exhibition ‘Penetralia.’”
Some five years later, the exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli came about, as did a new journey. “Since previously living, making, and installing a show in New Zealand—a five-week trip—she’d held to the idea of living, making work, and exhibiting in places we’d never been before,” Simmons notes. So, following this model, they set up camp in Mexico City and Oaxaca, where Lucas created the works that would go on view in the exhibition. The site of the exhibition, the museum that holds Diego Rivera’s extensive collection of pre-Hispanic art, was a poetic, fitting space.
Over the five weeks the artists experienced grueling heat, frequent gut inflammation, Easter celebrations (“music in the streets, fireworks while church services were being held, a burning man”), and a short-lived stay in the Oaxaca hills (“the hovel had an en-suite compost toilet full to the rim with shit”), before settling in a house in Oaxaca, where they found “the perfect situation to live and work.” Each morning the artmaking began as the two talked over coffee, discussing the tasks at hand for the day ahead; Simmons describes Lucas’s process as “fast, to-hand, engaging, craftsmanship.” Thinking back to the trip, in addition to the psychotropic effects of Mezcal and “several thousand” Delicados cigarettes, Simmons recalls black feet. “On occasion I’d be working entirely naked—the heat was insane and it was novel when we had visitors. In any case we all had bare feet, and it wouldn’t take long before we had black feet. Soot from Popocatépetl, the local active volcano.”
“Photographing the works and designing a catalogue was my principal task, but also in whatever way assisting Sarah in making the sculptures and drawings,” Simmons notes. “In fact I went out to Mexico with InDesign so as to present the final catalogue ready for print just before we would leave. As it turned out the intensity and amount of work meant the catalogue—or as it became, the tome—was published a year later.” In documenting Lucas, her process, and her works, Simmons was keen on not interfering. “I didn’t want my photographing of Sarah working to in any way disrupt her process—and so change it,” he explains. “Of course everything has an impact, but I didn’t want my photography to impact on her making.” With a book in mind, he went about carefully capturing Lucas’s “NUD” sculptures from all angles. He set up a makeshift pedestal before a white wall and shot them handheld with a standard zoom lens— “to control perspective.” Simmons emphasizes that the photographs shouldn’t be understood as an attempt to preserve the works. Rather, they encapsulate the notion of photographs as “living muses.”
“The final images, which importantly in this case I printed myself, should have as much living power as beholding the sculpture,” he says of the works that formed the exhibition at Paul Stolper Gallery, “the HOOLIAN series.” “Indeed, I hope the images in some way sum the various powers of the sculpture into a didactic single power.” When asked what it means to him to have these works presented in a gallery, Simmons remarks, “People I don’t know can see them—in the flesh.” Despite professing that he doesn’t enjoy seeing art in galleries, but rather in homes or public spaces, he notes that Paul Stolper is something of an exception. “The great thing about Paul Stolper’s gallery is it has the architecture and proportions of a house, it’s human before humans occupy it. It has the British Museum—a somewhat giant ferry moored at the end of the street—a fish-and-chip shop to the right, and a pub serving Aspall to the left.” This human element was also what attracted him to the museum in Anahuacalli.
Essential to the images, though, Simmons says, is their witness, who is required to go on a journey of their own to truly experience them. “An unfamiliar, slightly unsettling appearance, if confident, is in some way able to encourage the viewer to ‘make the journey,’ and behold with a novel heightened awareness,” he explains. “Presences elsewhere that might previously have gone unnoticed now leap forward; the newly installed perception makes the once invisible now familiar and fundamental. This may sound like a peculiarly esoteric proposition, but I think it to be very primitive and basic—like war, god, and sex.”
“I’m not so interested in contemporary art (contemporary as in the last thousand years),” Simmons says when asked what attracts him to Lucas’s works. “Sarah likewise. In fact as artists we make work because we can’t find it elsewhere, and we require it. She’s certainly one of the most profound artists, working today, and from whenever. It’s not at all art just for the establishment, it’s for elevating everyone.”