The bad-girl artist and the Serpentine curator talk shop
Twenty years ago, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin set up The Shop in a former doctor’s surgery on Bethnal Green Road, east London, selling handcrafted art and knick-knacks like badges, t-shirts, keyrings and wire penises. Their DIY enterprise stayed open for six months while they got pissed in front of their David Hockney altar and used their aquarium as a moneybox. Meanwhile, budding curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was initiating his project do it, conceived with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, which invites artists to invent sets of handwritten instructions, or “scores”. do it has now grown to include Ai Weiwei’s instructions on how to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera, Gilbert & George’s “Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George” and Theaster Gates’ “How to Catch the Holy Ghost in a Shopping Mall”.
For the new do it 2013 exhibition at this month’s Manchester International Festival, Lucas has created a homage to Franz West using instructions from the do it back catalogue and Emin has paid tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois. The ideas, DIY attitude and “just do it” spirit of 1993 are still going strong.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s not that in 1993 all of these things were invented. The spirit – the genesis of it – started much earlier. But maybe in 1993 it all came together. 1993 was the year of The Shop, it was the year when do it happened, it was the year of Aperto ‘93 in Venice, where a lot of artists from our generation met for the first time. A lot of things crystallised.
Sarah Lucas: It wasn’t one thing or one person; so many people kept the whole scene buoyant. We were our own audience and we liked it. It generated a lot of energy but
I don’t think you can bring it down to one moment.
HUO: I remember the first time I visited your studio. A DIY spirit was very much in the air. What was the epiphany behind The Shop? Do you remember the day you and Tracey had the idea?
SL: Yeah, I think we were sitting in a restaurant in Brick Lane. I was previously at a studio with Gary Hume. Tracey was mostly writing then, she wasn’t making much art... And we came up with the idea of getting a shop. Just doing it, I suppose. There was this particular shop that was empty and I contacted the estate agent. We rented it for six months and paid in advance. We thought we’d just start turning up there and make it up as we went along. Looking back on it, Tracey really did have this entrepreneurial flair. We used to make these t-shirts, and Tracey would say, ‘When we sell the first one it’s a fiver, we make another it’s a tenner and then the next one, £20.’ We did a lot of drinking at The Shop until the late hours. I can always remember swinging in this hammock we had and falling out on many occasions. We used to spend a lot of time in the pub next door. When someone came in and bought a badge they’d pay 50p. We’d go next door to the pub and buy two halves of Guinness because they were 25p a half. We did actually get by from what we made at The Shop.
(The YBAs) were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end, we decided what art was legitimate
HUO: You invented The Shop in an Indian restaurant in London with Tracey, and I had coffee and breakfast with Boltanski in Paris maybe about the same month and conceived do it. It was also about the promiscuity of collaboration. For me, do it was almost open source. It was the beginning of things becoming more global. It was a moment of intense travelling, taking night trains all over Europe. You know, ‘How can I make things that globally make sense, have a show that travels in a different way?’ For my Hotel show (Hotel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763, 1993) I was basically in the hotel room for 24 hours and anybody could come in at three or six in the morning. It was non-stop. It was a similar feeling to The Shop – your dialogue with Tracey was also non-stop.
SL: Certainly on Saturday nights, we were open all night on purpose. It was a good area to be, just off Brick Lane. There were bagel shops open all night. We were absolutely knackered at the end of the six months. We went from nothing to having half the world coming through the door. I look back on it all fondly. I’m one of these people who are very fond of their own work. They’re sort of like friends to me.
HUO: I remember I basically had no money, but I bought this cigarette package from The Shop, a ready-made one. I remember a conversation we had then about the use of cigarettes and you said something I never forgot. I was wondering if it was about death and you told me, ‘Only if we think about such distractions that make us think about life,’ something like that. So that was already all there, no?
SL: Yeah. It’s amazing, making things, how often you realise that something was there very much earlier. Really, things started happening for me in early 1992. I did ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ and I had my first one-person show at City Racing, which was where I met Tracey. You could even say it started before that, being part of the Goldsmiths group. The Shop was about using premises that nobody else was using at the time. It was a social necessity (to adopt the bad-girl image) in those days, living in squats and co-ops in rundown areas of London. I didn’t have that much money so I was either cycling, walking or taking the nightbus. I found it useful to have a good pair of boots on and look a bit tough. It was a way of not getting picked on. Now I live in the countryside and don’t feel a great necessity for that. I mean, there are similarities in my appearance now in the sense that I’m still in old jeans and jumpers with black hair, but that toughness was rather integral to the reality of living in that situation.
New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.
HUO: It’s interesting that you mentioned City Racing. When you talk about the DIY spirit, the artist-run spaces were very important in early 90s London.
SL: City Racing was an old betting shop, and ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ was in a shop in Kingly Street, which funnily enough is where Sadie Coles is opening her new gallery. So that’s kind of gone full circle, back in Kingly Street where it all started for me.
HUO: When I came to London in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a whole map of these artist-run spaces, which is quite difficult to imagine now because it was obviously before rent was expensive. Now most of those spaces are public spaces and commercial galleries. Back then, none of these spaces were really commercial – they were self-organised, artist-run spaces that worked on a shoestring budget. Gilbert & George were a great inspiration for me, that idea of art for all. I remember as a teenager I went to see them and they explained about that famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. Gilbert & George were devastated as young artists not to be invited, so they just went to the opening as living sculptures, and that’s obviously what got the most attention. That was a great inspiration, to see that one doesn’t have to wait for an entitlement.
SL: It’s also who decides what’s legitimate art. In terms of the huge bunch of artists that we became (and it seems to be continually expanding), it was like a sort of ongoing party. We were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end we decided what was legitimate.
HUO: Robert Musil said in his great novel The Man Without Qualities that art can happen when we expect it least. That’s why my first show in ’91 was The Kitchen Show. When your show Penis Nailed to a Board happened, it happened in a shop. After that I invited you to my Hotel exhibition because that was another model of an exhibition that was more in the context of life.
SL: New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.
HUO: One of the reasons we did the new do it book is that there are so many younger artists reconnecting to that DIY spirit. There is also the idea of the rumour. In 1993 I lived between Switzerland and Paris and heard rumours about The Shop and came to London to see it. A similar thing had happened with my shows – there wasn’t really any advertising, so it became a rumour. People came to the hotel room and there were queues outside. Richard Wentworth said one of the ways an exhibition travels is in these concentric circles through rumour. The same for 60s performances which only seven people saw but then became very well known.
SL: And some things, because of the rumour, continued to grow after they opened, even when they had technically finished. The rumour keeps it going.
Until September 22, DO IT 20 13, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Art Gallery.mif.co.uk. manchestergalleries.org