...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want

In Art on June 13, 2011 at 10:29 pm

May – August 2011

Hayward Gallery, London

Before this exhibition, my perceived image of Emin was a YBA, a darling of the corporates, an artist who had traded on shock value before predictably accepting her place in the Academy.  Which of her works would I have actually recognised?  I was probably not a lone member of the public in knowing only the infamous bed, and perhaps a handful of other pieces.  I did not expect to be particularly impressed by this exhibition; I expected a series of glib, once-shocking, now gimmicky pieces of easily dismissed, barely affecting efforts.

The first room showed her blankets, trademark works filled with words and sentences.  They told stories of her life, often tragic, with occasionally penetrating insights.  I’m not a huge fan of words in graphic art – I think it can be very difficult to find subtlety in words when there are only one or two sentences. It almost feels like a way of avoiding the bother of attempting to say what one wants to in pictorial form, either figuratively or abstractly.  It tends to the obvious.

One way to add some sort of layered interest to words is the presence of spelling or grammatical errors, of which there were plenty here.  The exhibition guide said that the mistakes were not intentional, but ‘they [were] often felicitous.’  I can believe that these mistakes were not intentional – Emin left school at thirteen – but I also think that she must have known there would be mistakes, and could quite easily have found ways to remove them had she wanted to.  It seems an attempt to remind us of her difficult past, but my over-riding emotion here was irritation.

The next room contained Emin’s neon pieces – mostly one sentence or phrase curled in one or two pieces of glass, sensually written.  Only one or two were pictorial, one of upturned legs with a kind of neon scribble at the crotch.  Again, my objections to words in graphic art rose up – these were epithets or aphorisms, beyond which it was difficult to scratch much depth.  Emin has said that, ‘[Art is] some kind of communication, a message about very, very simple things that can be really hard.’  These neon signs were such thoughts and feelings communicated to us in the visual language of commerce.  Yes, they were often bold in their subject matter, and they were bold in their simplicity, but they were essentially one-dimensional.

Neon suggests sleaze, and is indissolubly linked with money, with selling oneself.  Since Emin has created so many pieces in this signature material, the links with commerce become twofold.  This is her brand.  I began to realise that she must have spent some time cultivating this brand through works easily recognisable as hers – the quilts, the neon, the subject matter.  Some of these thoughts may well have been created by my preconceptions of Emin as a YBA, as a child of Blairite Britain.  Perhaps I was being unfair, perhaps all artists come back to the same materials, the same subject matter, to probe further, ask more questions.

The next piece confirmed for me that money is an overt central thematic concern of Emin’s.  It was a film of her running through the Wild West in a white dress with money stapled to it.  Ennio Morricone’s score to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly played as the soundtrack.  It finished with a caption – ‘Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money.’  Her conflicted attitude to money was becoming apparent.  The unnecessary repetition of the word, ‘money,’ suggested a circularity to her perception of value.  The dress was not simply worth more, it was worth more money.  This was one of the few examples of the games that Emin can play intelligently within the confines of a single sentence.

I was now in the film section, and it was while watching the next piece, Why I Never Became a Dancer, that I began to understand the value of Emin’s work.  Up until then, we had seen flashes of the tragedy in her story.  But I hadn’t felt it.  I had almost felt it was being used, rather than explored.  In this film, she recounted the story of how she had entered a dance competition in Margate at the age of thirteen, where she had been ritually humiliated by a group of older men chanting, ‘Slag!  Slag!  Slag!’

The penultimate few minutes of the film were her voiceover, ‘They weren’t men.  They were less, less than human.  I’m better than all of them.  I’m free.’  This was followed by the final scene – her dancing in a studio as an adult, all cheesy smiles and exuberant moves while one of disco’s greatest tunes plays, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).  As the camera span around her, glimpses were seen of  the world which she now inhabited, wealthy enough to hire a dance studio all to herself, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the London skyline.  Look at me now.  This was not redemption, it was revenge.

Clearly, that pain still smarted.  I’m not surprised.  The boorishness required to bully a thirteen year old child like that was and is truly shocking.  But what struck me here was how inward-looking the piece was.  There was no attempt to explore the feelings of the men, to explore anyone else’s feelings or the roots thereof.  Where were they now?  We will never know.  Emin appeared not to care.  They were literally dehumanised.  The entire exhibition had been entirely self-absorbed, there had been no putting herself in the position of another.  This is inevitable when all of your work starts with one of your own experiences, rather than an imagining of something.

I began to think that Emin was the perfect artist for our times – self-absorbed, self-indulgent.  It chimed perfectly with the prevailing neoliberal ideology – serve the market, and therefore the world, by serving yourself.  Put yourself first, you must.  There is no other way.

It was during the next film that I finally got it, that I finally appreciated what was really exciting about Emin’s art.  In How It Feels, we saw Emin tell the story of how she got pregnant despite being told that she never could, and then had a termination which led to an infection.  It was heartbreaking.

The camera was held by someone else, while Emin revisited the important places in the story.  She recounted the story and how she felt then and now, while an unseen interviewer asked questions.  The whole format seemed very familiar; this was reality TV.  This was celebrity culture as we know it now.  But the film was made in 1996, the year before Changing Rooms first aired, and four years before Big Brother aired in the UK.  This was not a comment on the prevailing culture of the day, but an anticipation and prefiguring of what was to come.  This sort of laying bare of the traumas of one’s own life, this sort of coruscating honesty, had not been seen before outside of literature.

Halfway through the film, Emin wonders through a park, ruminating on the child she never had.  The interviewer asks about the relative merits of having one’s own children, and compares sharing and control.  Emin replies, ‘I think I’ve shared enough.  Huh.  That’s a very good question though.’  Unlike the past traumas of her life, Emin does have complete control of her art.

This is also unlike the many celebrities whom we ‘know’ now from reality TV, from the red-tops, from the celebrity magazines.  As we witness Emin gain some kind of redemption through art, no matter how conflicted it is or how bathetic we perceive it to be, we are forced to reconsider the hellish lives of less intelligent celebrities who do not have this capacity, this control.  The ones whose bubbles we (some of us) clamour to burst once we have allowed them to rise – Jade Goody, Katie Price, Paris Hilton.  The chant of the men of Margate reverberates, ‘Slag  Slag!  Slag!’

Upstairs, there were her sketches and sculptures, on which I did not spend much time because the film had burdened me with her pain, which I could not quite remove from my consciousness.  I noticed that the style of her sketches reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec, and congratulated myself on drawing some kind of link between her own ability to create a brand, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s ability to do the same not only with his own work, but actually an entire city and lifestyle.

There were also links here between different explorations of feminity.  The racy glamour of fin-de-siecle Montmartre was referenced here, but there was more sleaze than excitement.  In Black Cat, the initial sultry suggestiveness of the lady’s red shoes blurs into disgust as one looks closer and notices their indistinctness.  Are they red shoes, or is that a puddle of blood?

Perhaps these pieces are no longer shocking.  But I do not think this level of raw honesty, of unedited self-exposure, had been seen before Emin.  Perhaps it was self-absorbed, perhaps Emin is self-absorbed, but in sharing her stories, and in witnessing the catharsis she has experienced through art, the audience does gain something.  Not quite the same catharsis; actually I came out feeling weighed down.  Perhaps what we gain from Emin is indicative of the voyeuristic nature of our own culture – or perhaps what we gain from Emin is a moral counterweight to what we lose by ogling the celebs in Heat magazine.  This is not something you can mull over while eating your lunch.  I came out laden with guilt – Emin’s, the men of Margate’s, my own.

Slag!  Slag!  Slag!  Still it reverberates.

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