June 2011, Tracey Emin @ Hayward Gallery
Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want
“I'm not trying to find another thing that's wrong with me, but I'm such a nice person, and I have a couple of drinks and I'm really good fun and then I'm really not fun”.
I have to admit that I have never been particularly interested in Tracey Emin’s work. Of the YBA artists, she is one that has not captured my imagination in any particular way. However, I do realise that my case for non-involvement is not representative of the wider picture in this case for Tracey’s reputation has over the past ten years rocketed to true art-stardom. Expressing herself through a range of disparate media and most eloquently through drunken TV interviews, Tracey has carved for herself a rather unique artistic niche that continues to draw interest, criticism and adulation.
No surprise then that her most recent retrospective at Hayward Gallery in London titled Love is What You Want has received mixed reviews. The most “fun” to read is as always the one by Brian Sewell, the ever-grumpy, vitriolic-grandpa of the Evening Standards’ Arts page. Of course it is no surprise that Sewell, once again misses the point entirely; he always does, aside from when reviewing mainstream classical or early modern art. In those circumstances, inebriated by the glamour of the historicized past he is able to drop the words genius and master at every other sentence; any critical approach is forgotten as he is too busy incensing the shrine of the glories of art with a capital “A”. But with contemporary art things are different: it is too unpredictable, surprising, innovative, destabilizing and irreverent for him.
In his review of the show Sewell clearly states that Emin’s is no art whatsoever and that her self-obsessed persona lives him cold and indifferent. What Sewell and others seem to miss here is that Emin’s art does not just lie in the manifested works on show in the gallery space but that the whole “Tracey Emin thing” is a performative-diaristic presentation of which the works in the gallery space are mainly props. Thinking about Emin as a body-artist may in fact be the most productive approach to take for the artist is continuously busy weaving the threads of a persona that may or may not be the one that really walks in Emin’s shoes. Like Nan Goldin, another artist who has made the diaristic style her main artistic vehicle, Tracey continuously lives us guessing. How much of what she writes on her blankets, says in her interviews, draws or paints are true facets of the real Tracey? Asking this is of course of no relevance whatsoever for we will never know who Tracey Emin really is and what she does. Like for Andy Warhol’s multiplied Marilyns and Elvises the impossibility of knowing the real person is represented by the multiplication of the image through the media which fragments and reconfigures a persona that never really exists, exception made for in the consumerist utopia that generates them in the first place. What Emin presents is fiction - a personal fiction heavily relying on narrative for its delivery. But what if the opposite were true? What if Tracey is actually quite closely Tracey and her works do really grant us a rare and super-intimate view of what is inside a real person. What are we to make of that?
The narrative drive that so heavily shapes Emin’s work takes centre stage upon entering the exhibition. The first room is actually impressive from many perspectives. As a non-Emin fan I seriously needed some persuasion here but this first room is so effective in generating curiosity and enthusiasm. Visitors are presented with a true show-stopper that seemingly happens too fast, too soon, even before the show has begun.
The key piece here is Knowing my Enemy (2002) a life-size partially collapsed pier with a hut precariously sitting at its end. The structure towers over the viewer in a dramatic way, but the frailty of the structure emphasized by the evident state of disrepair in which the hut is, creates a destabilizing poetic friction. The piece unfolds dramatically into a personal confession; a yearning for stability and love that ultimately appears to be balancing of very precarious grounds. On the adjacent wall, a letter from Emin’s father is framed page by page. The shaky hand-writing recounts a story Emin’s father wrote to her in order to try and help her battling one of her demons (and simultaneously one of his): alcoholism. Not bad for an entrance into a diaristic fiction: a letter from a father to a daughter. It hardly gets more intimate and private than this (one would assume so until reaching the cabinet in which Emin has exhibited her own used tampons).
In the same room we find her famous appliquéd blankets one of her most original strands of production from the 1990s. These actually look stunning in the flesh and reveal much more in terms of texture and colours that any photographic reproduction could reveal. The use of textiles and stitching is a reprise of the traditional feminine art-form. However it is through what Emin writes that this initial compliance with the canon of feminine art is subverted: Helter Fucking Skelter, Hate and Power Can Be a Terrible Thing are hardly picked from the catalogue of posh embroidery. It is clear that it is no “lady” writing here and that these messages are uttered by the mischievous character that Emin stages for us. The second room presents a collection of her very famous neon signs. These are presented in a completely darkened gallery that enhances the brilliance of colours. These neon signs have forsaken their original consumeristic matrix and deliver personal but universal statements related to everyday life. Love is what you want is one of the messages appearing in this room.
The prominence of the written word in Emins’ work and the choice of seemingly futile subjects suggests that Emin is the writer of what Deleuze and Guattari called minor literature - the use of a major language that is subverted from within. Emin’s everyday fragments of narratives are misplaced from the occasional vocalization of casual conversation into the crystallized realms of the stitched and gas-illuminated. It is through this process of crystallization that these throwaway fragments acquire a political aura as they become slogans delivered from a working-class perspective. Furthermore, in compliance with Deluze and Guattari’s definition of a minor literature, the enunciation has a universal and collective value, for Emin’s sentences are simultaneously hers and can be equally appropriated by everyone else seeing the show and this of course is one of the artist’s work main strengths.
Let’s face it, most of her videos are funny and when they are not they still get us thinking. In Why I Never Became a Dancer, Emin recounts a public humiliation by a group of lads at a dance competition when she was fifteen. She was booed off stage to chants of “slag, slag”. As the video unfolds Emin launches into a cathartic whirling dance to Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’. Emin joyously dances around a room with a boom-box on the floor as the camera pans in and out on her very famous smirk. Here revenge is sweet.
Unfortunately the show’s rhythm is abruptly interrupted by the content of the following galleries and, it is never to be regained again – everything indeed changes in terms of linguistics but also in terms of size. Where before one was greeted by exuberant and large size or seductively bright pieces, the rest of the exhibition presents myriads of small objects, diary pages, postcard-size photographs, used tampons and extremely minimalist drawings – most importantly there is a lot to read, possibly far too much for the non-Tracey-devotee.
Still interesting is the meticulous reproduction of her Memphis exhibition from 2003 in which Emin gathers together a number of everyday objects which had/have a sentimental value of some description in her life. The title refers to the ancient capital of Egypt, which Emin was surprised to find out is now a municipal rubbish damp (a metaphor for her life). More than others, this work throws a life-line to the most recent offering titled Mother, Father, Children (2011) which dwells over minimalist representations one would have not expected from Emin.
The famous I’ve Got it All (2000) photograph which sees Emin wide open legged clutching at money is a welcome respite from the small size and overly-wordy. This image has come to identify the artist over her twenty years career. What is intriguing about this photograph is the presupposed incarnation of a postmodern Danae in which the passivity of the original Renaissance representation is subverted through the ambiguity of suspension. Is the money bursting out of her vagina in an allegorical allusion to her acquired fame and success? Has Emin subverted the narrative line of the original story in which Zeus is impregnating Danae disguised as a golden shower by giving birth to money instead or is she trying to desperately keeping it all in as effectively what she has is very little (as the demure surroundings suggest)?
Conspicuously her famous unmade bed from 1998 is missing. This omission is key to the consideration that the material we are offered is heavily edited by Emin in order to redefine herself as the artist she would like people to remember.
Overall, this is an interesting show and it is not entirely about the cult of celebrity as some claim. Some works are more engaging, immediate and effective than others but the overall impression is that Emin has gone a long way since her drunken days in which she surfed the YBA phenomenon. Emin was born in Croydon, a suburb of London predominantly known for its then quintessential aura of provinciality (yes it is the same town Kate Moss is from…) and spent her youth in Margate, a town best known for donkey rides, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. In England this background is referred to as “common”. She went to fine art college at Maidstone and then took an MA at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (far less common). Most importantly, she is the daughter of an immigrant Cypriot working-class father who had two families (at the same time). She went through rape and multiple abortions. Rising to stardom from a background of poverty and “commonness” is still a crime in the minds of some, at least in England. Ultimately, Emin functions in the art world as a postmodern Olympia, exposing herself with pride to the eyes of all, unashamed of what she does to become rich and famous as in the process she unorthodoxically subverts the secular stratified structure of English social classes.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief