Friday, 9 September 2011

Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want, Hayward Gallery (18 May-29 August 2011)

I have fallen back in love with Tracey Emin.  It has been a rocky relationship over the years.  Like many people, she first came to my attention in 1999 through the media frenzy surrounding My Bed, which formed part of her work short listed for that year’s Turner Prize and video footage from a Channel 4 television programme she took part in two years before showing her inebriated and barely coherent before stumbling off set.  The image of Emin as the loud-mouthed, out-of-control party girl was born and alongside Damien Hirst, the ‘enfants terribles’ of the Young British Artist phenomenon, unwittingly gained fame and notoriety beyond the confines of the art establishment.

I thought My Bed was inspired - ballsy, daring, disgusting and totally compelling.  I got annoyed when I read it had been the target of protest by two misguided art activists.  I got even more annoyed when Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 was singled out for criticism and seen by many as an insignificant loss to contemporary art when it was destroyed in a fire at an art storage warehouse in 2004.

My interest in her waned though as I saw much of her subsequent work as too derivative of other artists – the pregnancy/abortion work too Mary Kelly, the blanket series too Louise Bourgeois and the neon signs too Noble and Webster.  While acknowledging and celebrating her post-feminist credentials and lineage, my judgment had been unconsciously clouded by the adverse publicity that surrounded her.   I failed to recognise the very serious and totally committed artist Emin was, and remains today.

Love Is What You Want totally revised my opinion about Emin, as I am sure it has for many other people who like me will be experiencing her work personally for the first time, rather than from reproduced images.  Spanning a career of nearly twenty years and embracing the full range of media available to contemporary artists, even the Brutalist architecture of the Hayward Gallery, which normally dominates and sometimes distracts from the work in its exhibitions, seems to have come out in support of Emin.  It provides the perfect austere and slightly clinical backdrop for her work.

Dark and disturbing family histories set the direction of Emin’s personal and artistic journey.  In a letter from her father, which he wrote to try to stop her excessive drinking and to which Knowing The Enemy was her response, Envar Emin describes his seduction and loss of virginity by the wife of his employer.  At the time she was twenty-four, he was twelve and a half.

In Conversation With My Mum, Emin asks “what is it that you could live through that you thought I could not” after exposing her Mum’s own history of infidelities, children by different men and her constant declaration throughout Emin’s upbringing that she has never wanted her daughter to have children of her own.  “I just prayed that if you ever did get pregnant you told me in time so we could get you an abortion”.  As has well been documented, Emin was raped when she was thirteen.

It is no wonder then that Emin’s ambiguity and ambivalence surrounding sex, pregnancy and abortion inform and continue to permeate throughout her work.  They still pack a powerful punch.  It is a shame though that from her entire output, these works grabbed all the headlines when other works, such as the family memorabilia, almost devotional pieces (May Dodge My Nan, Wimsey and Emin & Emin, for example) are as equally compelling.

Emin also has a wicked sense of humour, which can be seen throughout the exhibition and which she uses to great effect (Emin’s Army, Cat Watching and Running Naked).  Her most recent work shows no sign of diminished rigor and she appears to be working more sculpturally and monumentally.  I am curious to see how her subject matter evolves or changes as she enters her fifties and sixties as it does she does seem fixed on a specific timeframe in her life.

British pop diva Paloma Faith wrote a song called “Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?”   In the work included in Love Is What You Want, Tracey Emin gives us a bit of each and sometimes both.  Obviously, the rawness of Emin’s work will be not be palatable to everyone, but I believe her artistic legacy will far outlast and outweigh her notoriety and deservedly so.

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