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'Claire Lambe's Libidinal Economy'

Art Monthly Australasia, March 2017

Sophie Knezic

Claire Lambe’s Libidinal Economy



In the opening sequence of Serbian director Dušan Makavejev’s ribald and very un-PC sexploitation confection, Sweet Movie (1974), the MC of The Crazy Daisy Show hosts the Chairwoman of the Chastity Belt Foundation as a co-sponsor of the 1984 Miss World contest. A retinue of chasuble-wearing attendants surround the sequinned elderly Chairwoman who starts to shimmy to the beat of a conga-playing percussionist against the television studio backdrop of a gold lamé curtain before Miss Southern Rhodesia steps onstage and the parade of international virgins begins, each contestant subject to gynaecological examination by one very dubious Dr Mittelfinger.


Makavejev’s cult classic hovers in the background as a reference point to many of Claire Lambe’s photographs and sculptural installations. Miss Universal (2015), a five-metre long print features a line-up of skull-capped and G-string-clad women who would not be out of place in Makavejev’s baroque extravaganza. More direct reference is made in Lambe’s 2015 photographic series ‘Remembering Me, Me’, based on scenes within Makavejev’s films, such as the Sweet Movie episode of Mr Dollars unveiling his gilded penis on the nuptial bed.


LazyBoy (2012) riffs on this gilt-inflected porno theatricality. A pair of gold lamé disco pants placed on the floor has plump buttocks as if harbouring a body beneath. The oscillation between the alternate reading of discarded clothing or a prostrate body makes for a disturbingly compelling form. Added to which is the sexual innuendo of the title, meaning much more than a comfortable reclining chair. Such innuendo is more elegantly conveyed in Shhhh men at work I (2013); a sculpture of polyurethane foam, polymer resin and bronze whose bisected form simultaneously suggests female genitalia or a split apple, a tiny pair of feet tiptoeing away from the shape as if from forbidden pleasures. Shhhh men at work II (2013) reprises the fetishistic symbolism, this time the toes of a cast bronze foot peep beneath draped chain mesh in the seductive manner of an exotic dancer.


The undeniable eroticism of Lambe’s sculptures conjures the subcultural world of 1970s underground clubs (including in Bristol where Lambe went to art school), BDSM and grindhouse theatres, as well as the auteur directors of the era poised on the cusp of sexploitation and art house – not only Makavejev but Warhol’s late cinema and almost anything by Ken Russell. Lambe’s coming of age in this period also coincided with the transgressive cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and echoes of their outré cinematographic sensibilities are also traceable in her work. Yet Lambe’s objects transmute these underground references into a space that is resolutely sculptural, one that harnesses and accentuates physical tension. This means that the intimations of pre and post-climactic states are anchored materially: pert forms suggesting anticipation, crumpled materials suggesting energies spent. The frequent appearance of a single sheet of glass suspended in contrast to a supine form heightens the sensation of material tension, adding a tinge of fragility, risk and voyeurism.


Anterior to the world of 1970s subculture lie references to earlier twentieth-century artistic antecedents. Yakety Sax (with Lou Hubbard, 2011, comprising a loose mound of clay wedged with a sheet of glass and topped with a pair of plastic breasts, suggests an aesthetic of fragmented, eroticised body parts in correspondence with Hans Bellmer, especially the latter’s 1970s sculptures such as La demie poupée (1971). In turn, one of Bellmer’s key references was the subversive French philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille whose miscellany of erotic fantasies was detailed in novels such as Blue of Noon and Story of the Eye, the latter work directly cited in Bellmer’s 1946 photographic series ‘Study for Georges Bataille’s Histoire de l’Oeil’. Bellmer’s work, however, has stood accused of misogyny; a charge that cannot be levelled at Lambe’s practice which exudes a sexuality that is at once more wry, tender and deflationary. Lambe’s invocation of sexualised forms is in fact closer to the erotic universe of Louise Bourgeois, a peer of both Bataille and Bellmer, whose sculptures and drawings probed the theme of sexual desire and corporeality through the lens of female subjectivity while exploring the postwar condition of women and the psychodramas of domestic life. If eroticism is the cornerstone of all these artists’ works, this in turn is congruous with French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s attestation in a text published in 1974 that ‘the libido never fails to invest regions’. Libidinal drives form intensities that spill into and propel all dimensions of sociopolitical life, resulting in what he terms a ‘libidinal economy’.[i]


Lambe has spoken of her desire to activate her sculptural forms so they might not exist merely as inert objects but act as witnesses to scenes or events or hypothetically be put to use.[ii] This urge led to a collaboration with Melbourne dancer Atlanta Eke and Chunky Move that resulted in the 2015 performance of Miss Universal. Here works by Lambe were incorporated into the dancers’ movements; memorably, a pair of flopping foam legs as sexy yet disconcerting surplus bodily appendages. In this way they troubled the distinction between sculpture and prop, object of use and object of view. Yet Lambe has no aspiration to the role of director nor an overdetermined choreography of her pieces, stating: ‘I don’t want to be in control of the object.’[iii]


If Lambe’s focus to date has been the eroticised body and symbolic transgression, increasingly she seeks to imply dramaturgical situations that suggest latent psychological spaces prompted by the ambiguous interplay of sculpture and image. For her forthcoming solo exhibition at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, ‘Mother Holding Something Horrific’, the artist turns her attention closer to home, excavating aspects of her past and incorporating confronting imagery of her family members. To what degree do we accept or contest the familial roles we are invariably compelled to assume? How do the experiences of our early adult lives mark us in indelible ways, and to what extent are we psychically formed by the cultural contexts of our ‘coming of age’? These are some of the self-scrutinising questions nesting within Lambe’s provocative libidinal economy.



‘Claire Lambe: Mother Holding Something Horrific’ will be exhibited at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, from 8 April to 25 June 2017; it has been commissioned as part of the Influential Australian Artist Series, curated by Max Delany and Annika Kristensen.


[i] See Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans Iain Hamilton Grant, Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2015 (first published in 1974).

[ii] Claire Lambe, unpublished interview with the author, 4 January 2017.

[iii] Claire Lambe, ibid.


Image caption:

Claire Lambe, Ladies' Evening, 2012, acrylic sheet, nylon, unfired clay, 170 x 90 x 30 cm.

Photo: Claire Lambe with Phebe Schmidt

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