Art Criticism

Tracey Emin
Love is What You Want
Hayward Gallery

Tracey Emin Love is what you Want 2011
Love is what you Want, 2011

Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as “natural patrons” of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl, 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.

I first met Tracey Emin when I went to interview her for Time Out at her audaciously named The Tracey Emin Museum on Waterloo Road in the mid 1990s. She was young, slightly cookie and evidently suffering from a bit of a hangover but there was something engaging about Mad Tracey from Margate with her Tammy Wynette sentimentality and her wonky teeth dancing around the space in her short skirt and bare feet amid pieces of unfinished art and scraps of confessional writing. Fresh from running a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London with her fellow artist Sarah Lucas where they sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with “I’m so fucky”, or “fucking useless”, her work seemed confrontational and challenging; shoving her dysfunctional private life in everyone’s faces. She wore her heart and her hangovers on her sleeve, hitting a wider public consciousness when, in an arguably brilliant (if unintentional) PR stunt, she mouthed off drunk on live TV. It was not that she was saying anything particularly original in her work but that she has had a genius for voicing the emotional concerns and obsessions of young women. This was Bridget Jones and Amy Winehouse made visual.

Tracey Emin Hotel International 1993
Hotel International, 1993

Emin’s work grew from the fertile cultural soil of 70s feminism that produced novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Mary Kelly’s installations displaying soiled nappies. Other women responded to the work not because it was high art but because it reminded them of the emotional chaos of their own lives. Her early blankets made and stitched herself rather than, as now, by assistants – the first Hotel International 1993 was made in response to a request for a CV – have a genuine rawness. Like a teenage girl’s private diary they are full of self-pity, anger and poignancy as they assault the viewer with phrases in dyslexic script such as ‘youre good in bed’ or ‘at the age of 13 why the hell should I trust anyone. No fucking way.’ In Pysco slut, 1999, where she announces she hasn’t had sex for three days, a damaged psyche can be seen trying to make sense of an unforgiving world through the medium of art. While I do not expect, 2002 is a painful meditation on motherhood (Emin is childless) where she says “I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone.”

Further into the Hayward Gallery there is a case containing her used tampons. In an accompanying text she tells how she never bled much to begin with, and now bleeds even less. That’s because she is now 47 and verging on the menopause. But there is a queasy feeling that this is all just too much information. The truth is I don’t honestly care very much about Tracey’s waning menstrual cycle while other less privileged women (she is now very rich) of the same age are worrying about whether their kids are going to pass their exams or are smoking too much dope. At an age when it might become her to do otherwise Tracey is still fixated on Tracey.

In the early performance pieces Singing Sculpture and Underneath the Arches, made between 1969 and 1971, Gilbert and George appear as “living sculptures”, part Flanagan and Allen, part Vladimir and Estragon. This set their signature for the next 30 years, with drinking, violence, gay culture, racism and graffiti-scrawled streets forming a grubby backdrop. Photographs of a performance at a railway arch in Cable Street encapsulate certain themes running through the later work: an iconoclastic identification with the outcast, a linking with a specific locality of London and a particular take on Englishness. But, most of all, these pieces show how Gilbert and George became the subjects of their own art.

Tracey Emin Running Naked 2011
Running Naked, 2011

Her genius for self promotion is evident in the project when she sought financial support for her work by sending out 80 letters asking friends to invest £10 in her creative potential. In return subscribers received regular pieces of correspondence that along with other personal ephemera have become art works that are displayed here and are now, no doubt, worth a great deal of money. But it is the body that is her true territory as in the photograph of her shoving coins into her cunt like in an demented version of Titian’s Danaë and the Shower of Gold or the video of her masturbating, long legs splayed, like some animated Egon Schiele drawing. It is also her less sensational paintings that are the most resonate and serious works. She is, in fact, an interesting painter. In these small-scale subdued, yet expressionistic works, where the subject (herself) is often faceless, there is a subtlety and poetic ambivalence rarely achieved in her more ‘sensational’ installations.

Tony Blair once declared another brilliant self-publicist, who caught the imagination of the public with her maudlin self-pity, Princess Diana, the People’s Princess. I would now like to offer a similar title to Tracey Emin: stand up the People’s Princess of Art.

Tracey Emin Love is What You Want at the Hayward Gallery from 18 May to 29 August 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Tracey Emin 1993-2011
Image 1: Photography by Kerry Ryan

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