Appears in ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978

“It’s like exploring the catacombs of my own mind”, Bruce Lacey said of his creative process, the fulfilment of his fantasies. “In that catacomb you find treasure, you find Aladdin’s cave; abracadabra.”

A very English eccentric, Lacey for as long as he can remember has created – a broad term he uses for an incredibly diverse body of work. More specifically, Lacey has drawn, sculpted, painted, built, performed and assembled – to name only a few of his methods – to realise the discarnate forms of his imagination. In 2012, the artist Jeremy Deller and art historian David Alan Mellor curated a retrospective of Lacey’s work at the Camden Arts Centre in London, in part to celebrate his eclectic production, but also to revive and preserve an artist in the contemporary consciousness whose cultural relevance had been overlooked. A fitting tribute perhaps to someone whose creations were often concerned with preservation or nostalgia, folk revival or the rural, a haunting or timelessness and a return to the earth.

A fascination with death and the macabre was buried deeper within Lacey’s mind. He had contracted tuberculosis during the Second World War while in the navy, the result of shared breath – coughing and spluttering – whilst trapped below sea level, the air recycled between members of his crew. As part of the diagnosis Lacey was X-rayed. The photons pierced the flesh, stripping it from the bone, leaving only a shadow that traces the line of an albescent form. For Lacey the results felt like a death sentence: a long and slow wait. Without medicine the only remedy was bed rest, and to occupy himself he began to draw and paint scenes from his childhood and the more traumatic events of the war. Lacey later described his art works as his own kind of psychotherapy, one that would change and respond to his needs.

After recovering, he joined the Royal College of Art in 1951, and was part of a generation of artists and designers still coming to terms with their experiences of war. But here Lacey would not find the same support that his own work had offered him. He hated art school and felt persecuted – he said later it had taken him a decade to get over it. During this time, in 1954, Lacey was awarded a travelling scholarship that allowed him to leave on a Levantine tour visiting Turkey, Crete, Egypt, Lebanon and Italy where he would find himself again drawn to the macabre, the eerie performance of death.

In the catacombs Lacey would embrace death as a matter of the body, stripping it of those inherently human concerns – reason, purpose and faith in the promise of an afterlife – to leave nothing but the near-bare abject form of a life spent and reduced to its parts. Death stripped of its human meaning exposes us to that which we feel we must cast aside in order to live. Georges Bataille said, in 1962, that “[n]ot only do we renounce death, but also let our desire, which is really the desire to die, lay hold of its object and we keep it while we live on. We enrich our life instead of losing it”. In accepting this loss, this text places Lacey amongst a larger constellation of figures – such as Bataille, or the artists Wols and Jean Fautrier – who, after the war, would treat the physical and abject state of death as a very real presence in life.

Lacey’s encounters in Italy would reinforce in him a preoccupation with the body and combine with his experience in the tuberculosis ward to focus his imagination on the modern medical discourses of the human form. Lacey collected and read medical journals and was particularly influenced by what was known as spare parts surgery: transplants and prosthetics – the futuristic fixes for deterioration, avulsion and other bodily shortcomings. Lacey responded with his own vision of the body, fusing the influence of the catacombs with the mechanical future-proofing of humanity from the medical sciences. He would appropriate flayed anatomical models, their musculature laid bare and their organs replaced with tubes and pipes. He built robots, kinetic sculptures, assembled from machinery and prosthetics found at a local factory – their faces often featured rigid mouths, eyes or ears.

The morbid and macabre entwined themselves with Lacey’s creative concerns, but have perhaps been overlooked in favour of the more flamboyant, more colourful aspects of his career. But the decay, the mummification, the cerements impregnated with mildew that he witnessed in Italy in 1954, were fundamental to his visions of death and sacrifice that were to form a vital part of his life and work. On his eightieth birthday, having recovered from heart surgery, Lacey produced an effigy of himself and proceeded to operate on it. Cutting open the chest cavity, he plunged his hands into the void, and from it removed a pig’s heart – the fleshy object resting somewhere in the space between art, life and death.