May 18 – August 29, 2011
The first piece I saw of Tracey Emin’s was “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” a tent with names appliquéd inside. I remember noticing the dates and figuring there was something more to this than shagging, though shagging and being shagged was the primary tone. In fact, the “slept with” was a careful wording, as some of the names—her grandmother’s for one—were not those of sex partners. The piece had a vulgar side, but that was also real.
A little later, in 1999, I saw Emin’s work again at the Brooklyn Museum, during the fated Sensation exhibition of works from Charles Saatchi’s collection. In fact, Emin’s art has always had a character different from that of many of her Young British Artists contemporaries, whose principal tone is the desire to shock. There is a sense of compassion in her work, an avowal of “love’s life-giving vulgarity,” as Frank O’Hara put it, which is lacking from many other YBA artists associated with Emin. Sarah Lucas and the Chapman Brothers, for example, make work expressing the idea that humanity is crass and disgusting, while Emin, for all her sexual and scatological subject matter, expresses an almost diametrically opposed view.
A recent exhibition at Lehmann Maupin Gallery made me reassess her work completely. She exhibited blankets with stitched figures on them and some word pieces. In a strange way, her more recent work seems to be approaching areas Kiki Smith has been working in. Both artists make use of “women’s materials” in some of their work to mine the elemental experiences of a woman in her body. In Emin’s case, both her use of language and her choices of materials are particular, driven by a necessity that is cultural as well as personal. She has gained a larger voice as an artist not because she has become famous but rather through a developed sense of empathy with the human condition.
So it was with great anticipation that I visited her retrospective, Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want, at the Hayward Gallery in London. Curated by Cliff Lauson and Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward’s Curator and Director respectively (Richard Parry was Assistant Curator), the exhibition promised an opportunity to reevaluate her entire output. Even in her native England, where she has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, represented England in the 52nd Venice Biennale, and been admitted to the Royal Academy on the one hand, and pilloried on television, in the press, and on blogs on the other, her achievement as an artist has yet to come into focus.
From its beginnings in the early 1990s until now, Emin’s work has been entirely, and intimately, connected to her autobiography. Emin’s 2005 book Strangeland (subtitled The jagged recollections of a beautiful mind) is an essential part of her corpus. Strangeland’s memories are an indispensable tool to understanding other aspects of Emin’s work. Strangeland is also a terrific piece of writing, despite its flaws (the first section, on her tough youth in the rundown seaside resort of Margate, is spellbinding, the second section, on her Dad, somewhat mythologized, and the third, on her more recent struggles, inspirational). In fact, everything Emin makes—blankets with fabric appliqué, neons, ephemera, sculpture, films, videos, installations, works on paper, paintings, and writing—is all part of one piece.
And in all that work is a heroic feat of self-revelation, on the scale of that of the Beat poets, in which her use of language exhibits the lyrical savoir-faire of a rock musician (the title of her Hayward show comes from a Marc Bolan song). Much of her work depends on her precise use of vernacular. Even Emin’s spellings and capitalizations are significant; they affect the visual and social meanings of her work. What is most remarkable is the way she can move, within a body of work, from raw pain and anger to extreme tenderness and humor.
Her neons channel the visual effect of bar or club signage, with their implications of desire and experimentation. A wall of them at the Hayward mesmerizes the viewer with surprising turns of phrase, such as “Those Who suffer LOVE,” “I said Don’t Practise ON ME,” “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME,” and, perhaps most provocatively, “You Forgot to Kiss my Soul”.
Much of Emin’s work appears to be documentary—most famously, “My Bed” (1998), which appears to be her actual bed, with detritus of sex and other casual hard living apparent, but also in a more controlled series of works that present artifacts from her two abortions and her relationships with people, including her grandmother. In fact, in all these works, the aesthetic effect is not documentary but rather poetic. These works are often cris de coeur, however carefully composed, and their emotional valence is stronger than their ability or desire to serve a social issue.
The subject matter in her work is only one element, albeit an evocative one. What makes it affecting is Emin’s subtle use of materials, whether they be fabric, ephemera, gouache, or acrylic on canvas. In the recent work, there is a lot of stitching, which, when combined with naked female bodies, can for a moment bring to mind the work of Ghada Amer, but Amer’s work, for all its lushness, is both harsher and more decorative than Emin’s. There is a hand-made quality to everything Emin does, a DIY aesthetic she has nurtured so that it actually blooms before one’s eyes.
“My Bed” is missed in the Hayward show—it would have been the centerpiece. “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With” was also absent, as it was destroyed in the 2004 fire that ravaged a London warehouse housing works owned by Charles Saatchi. Emin later turned down one million pounds (the insurance money) to re-create the piece. This refusal to mythologize her aesthetic past marks a distinction from the artist’s continual desire to re-create her biographical past. The feeling of these art works’ being in the right place at the right time permeates the Hayward exhibition. There is a lot of lust for life on display, which should be recognized before it is too late.