Putting on a Sarah Lucas survey in China was always going to be a brave move. In a country where nudity is forbidden, what would be the response to walls papered with multiple photographed penis tips and the display of giant concrete phalluses? Or to a trio of anatomically accurate plaster casts of the female body made from the waist down? Then there was the plan to mark the opening of Lucas’s exhibition at the Red Brick Museum in Beijing with her performance piece One Thousand Eggs: For Women. A participatory piece that invites women—and men, as long as they are dressed in stereotypical women’s clothing—to splatter eggs against a wall, this also promised to be an especially risky enterprise at a time when current events in Hong Kong mean that the mass-hurling of missiles can carry serious consequences.
Any lingering stereotype of Chinese reserve evaporated in the shower of projectiles
However, Lucas’s Chinese debut turned out to be eventful in all the right ways. Her catalogues may have been held by Chinese customs, but the works themselves survived a government inspection and have never looked better than in the Red Brick’s distinctive, dramatic spaces, designed by Dong Yugan of the Architecture Research Centre at Peking University. Strutting their stuff in the entrance rotunda, Lucas’s three-metre-high concrete boots Vox Pop Doris (2018) usher in a show of some 100 key pieces spanning 30 years—from assembled classics such as the sagging mattress Au Naturel (1994) and tabletop arrangement of Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), to a series of stuffed nylon NUD and BUNNY sculptures made this year, specially for Bejing. All of which was enthusiastically received by the crowds who flocked to the museum over the opening weekend, (politely) mobbing the artist for selfies and autographs.
The egg-throwing was a particular triumph. Any lingering stereotype of Chinese reserve evaporated in the shower of projectiles energetically launched by an exuberant throng of women of all ages, urged on by the artist, who declared, “Women have eggs, and women are called chicks, and they don’t often get the chance to let it all hang out—it’s a liberating thing.” Also enjoying the cathartic chucking were several Chinese men who had scrupulously observed the dress code. Among them was the overall host of the proceedings, the Red Brick Museum’s founder and director, Yan Shijie, who, smiling and sporting a fetching teal silk skirt, lined up with Lucas and his wife, Cao Mei, to throw the first eggs.
No sooner had the museum’s entrance wall been transformed into a yolky Cy Twombly lookalike than an elegantly arranged pile of bananas was wheeled in and another mass performance ensued. In an unprecedented remake of her classic 1991 photographic portrait, Lucas invited the throng to eat a banana with her and—amidst a renewed frenzy of cameraphone wielding—everyone, including the Yans, did so with gusto.
The seemingly unflappable, ever-cheerful Yan Shijie is something of a rarity among private museum founder-directors within China, or indeed anywhere. The reputation of the property developer as an all-round good sport had already been cemented by his sanctioning of an earlier participatory event in the museum that involved the on-site creation of Lucas’s most recent work, Beijing Diamonds. This took the form of a one-off sculpture achieved by Lucas and her team joining forces with Red Brick Museum employees to smash Yan’s Volvo car to smithereens. Trashing the boss’s car in the name of art proved to be an invaluable team-bonding exercise, and it certainly helped sow the seeds for the sense of freedom and bonhomie that was the prevailing spirit that greeted the British contingent at the Red Brick Museum.