Love is What You Want, 2011, ©Tracey Emin, Photo: Kerry Ryan. Blinding, 2000, © Tracey Emin, Photo: Stephen WhiteA couple of weeks ago I popped down to the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery to check out the Tracey Emin exhibition, Love Is what You Want. Supported by Louis Vuitton (whom Emin has collaborated previously), Love Is what You Want is on show until 29 August 2011, and is a highlight of the Southbank Centre’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Festival of Britain (with MasterCard).
Series of appliquéd blankets (various dates) © Tracey Emin, photo: David Levene
The first major retrospective in London of perhaps the UK’s most prolific contemporary artist, I was extremely excited to return to the Hayward Gallery, and of course to step into Tracey Emin’s playfully ironic world. A feminist icon (whose work investigates issues such as violence against women, female sexuality and the use/ creation of ‘womanly’ crafts, most recognisable in her quilts), Emin’s work spans many mediums, all united for the first time (printing, drawing, painting, photography, film, sculpture, writing, neon texts and textiles), drawing together many of the artist’s more obscure works, mostly unknown due to their lack of coverage in the UK press for their supposedly ‘shocking’ content.
Series of neons (various dates) © Tracey Emin photo: David LeveneUsing her own life and drawing upon personal experiences as the starting points for her work, Emin is a natural storyteller. Comprised of 13 parts (Neon, Film, Family and Friends, Early Work and Menphis to name but a few, split over five rooms), the exhibition starts with a letter by Mr Emin (Tracey’s dad) framed, and sitting alongside it her response. With Emin senior discussing his four vices: gambling, smoking, sex and alcohol, in what is a frank and in places painful letter, in the wider context of this exhibition the words seem even more poignant, and when compared with Tracey’s letter, it becomes very apparent that they are indeed father and daughter, with the apple evidentially not falling far from the proverbial tree. With both letters punctuated by poor spelling and words of longing, it becomes clear the inherited way of life that Tracey has been fighting since youth.
Salem © 2005Tracey Emin, photo: David Levene, White Rose, 2007 © Tracey Emin, photo: David Levene
Whether intended to be shocking and thought provoking, I am still not sure, however Emin has always been famed for her textual themed works, peppered with cute spelling errors such as ‘betraye’, ‘envey’, ‘beleave’ and ‘everythig’. Whilst funny and instantly apparent to many of the visitors on first glance, the spelling errors in themselves are rather beside the point, as there is a deeper message that resonates with the reader on a much less superficial level.
Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey EminThe largest ever presentation of her most famous appliquéd Blankets, 12 are double hung in, including Hotel International (1993) and Psyco Slut (1999). Perhaps comprising Emin’s most personal works, the Blankets examine themes of love and desire, faith and trust, rather famously documenting her sexual misadventures. With signature phrases such as ‘Planet Thanet’ and Psycho Sluts’ featuring heavily, and imagery of fluffy white sperm attacking the Union Jack, for me the Blankets some up Emin at her most iconographic.
Knowing My Enemy, 2002 © Tracey Emin, photo: David LeveneWith the Blankets and quilts displayed alongside Knowing My Enemy (2002), a partially-collapsed wooden pier that rears above visitors as they enter the exhibition - which proved to be a stark reminder that Emin grew up in Margate, Kent during the 1960-70s - it becomes apparent that like many of her fellow YBAs, Emin is most expressive and on point when working in large scale. Weather-beaten, precarious and essentially decaying Knowing My Enemy seems to be a very symbolic sculpture, although I could not quite place why. With reclaimed timber featuring heavily throughout Emin’s sculpture works and display plinths, there was an element of youth and cobbling together found objects that I feel really came through, showing a simplicity that was in stark contrast to other works displayed in this vast exhibition.
Black Cat, 2008, ©Tracey Emin, Photo: Todd -White Art PhotographyWith much of her work focussing on the darker aspects of life, Emin has been at the forefront of the British art scene since graduating from the RCA in the late 1980s. Whilst an exceptionally hard choice, I think my favourite works were those that featured towards the end of the exhibition, where Emin uses sculpture, writing and film to discuss her relationship with children. In the room titled Trauma, Emin had preserved tampons she used in the months after she had her second abortion. In some ways referencing themes Emin is most famous for, this room was very dark and to a certain degree made me feel uneasy as there was such a strong sense of unhappiness pouring from every piece of work. Perpetuating themes of isolation and desolation, sculptures such as two Little Coffins (2002), and The First Time I Was Pregnant I Started To Crochet The Baby A Shawl (1998-2004), really hit home. Most thought provoking was the 1996 film How It Feels, which was comprised of an interview after visiting the site of her second abortion years earlier. Perhaps hitting home for me, it was filmed in the courtyard of my secondary school, St. Marylebone. With themes of being unprepared and failure, the film made me imagine what I’d have done if I’d got pregnant at school and how different my own life might be as a consequence of whatever actions I took.
Coming in at a close second, I loved the Neon room which featured a series of phrases written in Emin’s hand, illuminated like something from the casino strip in Las Vegas – including a couple of pastel coloured silhouettes of the female form. Also reminiscent of a morose funfair, with poignant messages such as ‘I whisper to my past, do I have another choice’ emblazoned across a black wall, in some ways I felt that these were among Emin’s most personal works, seeing the artist take shelter behind strong, confident statements. Other works I had never seen before were in amongst Emin’s provocative drawings, mostly created as mono-prints, which all centred around the theme of female masturbation. What caught my eye were a series of embroidered white bed sheets which contained some of Emin’s most explicit language in white cotton, making the coarse subject matter not instantly visible to the viewer.
Littered with hard-hitting statements, humorous expressions and direct responses which explore the traumatic in life, Emin’s back catalogue (which begins in 1993, when she ran ‘The Shop’ in East London with friend and fellow YBA Sarah Lucas), expresses a deep longing for acceptance and to belong, which we see evident in her work throughout the decades, with the common theme of self-validation sought through sex offering a primitive and at the same time intellectual cornerstone of inspiration throughout her dynamic career.
Drawing upon a wealth of heartbreaking personal experiences, that some would choose to bury deep down, Emin’s work evokes something different with each piece. For me this groundbreaking exhibition sheds light on the new Tracey Emin, saying goodbye to her demons and chasing happiness.
It is of course very hard not to mention Charles Saatchi when contemplating Emin’s unprecedented rise to notoriety. Not taking any credit away from the artist herself, whose entrepreneurial spirit is outlined from the outset of this sprawling exhibit; visitors get to see a variety of intimate, irreverent and confrontational masterpieces that Emin financed uncompromisingly by inviting friends, collectors, and dealers to ‘invest’ in her creative potential by buying block- printed bonds. Shown for the first time in a series, Emin’s bonds – one of which was a small monoprint drawing complete with authentication stamps – helped her to fund what was to become The Tracey Emin Museum (1995-98), on London’s Waterloo Road.
In sum, this exhibition is one of the best retrospectives I’ve seen in years (since Richard Hamilton last year at the Serpentine Gallery), and perfectly proves why Emin is one of the highest earning and most prolific artists of her generation. Unfairly getting a lot of stick by the media in the past, this is Emin’s opportunity to hit back and explain in great detail the ethos and working practices behind her work, displaying the critical artists eye and unparalleled intelligence, guts and bravery to put her life out there so undisguised in her works, in some ways sacrificing herself for her art. A true inspiration for all women, Emin is the ultimate feminist artist we have practising in the UK, proving that no-matter where you come from and what you’ve done in the past, you can find inner strength to fuel a drive and a desire for success.
“I think all experiences add to make the person, but I could have done without the traumas in my life. What I’ve done is used my experiences to my advantage, turning the negative around to a positive. That’s one of the greatest things that trauma can teach.”
The ultimate exploration of self and spirituality, this exhibition left me doing some soul searching of my own, disarming my notions of what it is to be a modern woman, and what we can all achieve if we allow ourselves to explore the good and the bad life has to offer.