Tracey Emin: Love is what you want

Review of the Hayward Gallery exhibition, May - August 2011

First published in Third Way (July - August 2011)

Tracey Emin: Appliqued blankets (various dates)

This show could be the first half of one of the most powerful exhibitions you have ever seen: the other half is called ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ’.

Tracey Emin deserves this big retrospective in London’s landmark modern-art space because she is the ‘artiste du jour’. By turns winsome, funny, fragile, and irritatingly self-absorbed, she epitomises the insecurities and failings of our age: reaching out for love, as the title says, and yet not able to hold on to it.

Emin’s skills lie in story-telling and embroidery. With the exception of two pleasantly abstract oils, her drawing and painting show few signs of either skill or aesthetic interest. Their only relevant quality is a sense of fragility, but that is not enough to sustain roomfuls of works, many of which, in a different context, would be labelled as pornography.

Like many contemporary artists, her search for understanding focuses on herself. But where many other artists explore their own flesh and blood, most of Emin’s subject-matter is her life experiences and emotional development. She tries to establish her identity in her family history, who emigrated from Cyprus to Margate. She looks for warmth in relationships with her father, grandmother, twin brother. She meditates on her teenage promiscuity, on her (presumably many) broken relationships, her two abortions, the prospects of living the rest of her life single and childless.

Unfortunately, she displays little depth of self-analysis, or willingness to self-critique. Instead, in the spirit of modern narcissism, she reacts to the wrongs and disappointments she has suffered with confusion and anger. In the whole exhibition I did not hear her once say ‘It was my fault.’ In the very moving account of her first abortion, an event she describes as ‘a mistake’, she tells how she was asked if she wanted to go through with the abortion. She recounts that she could hear the child within her saying ‘No’; but she herself said ‘Yes’. And yet, she says, ‘It wasn’t really me. It was something outside of me. An instinct for self-preservation.’

Her work encapsulates a moral quandary of our narcissistic age. She wants to be free to suit herself, and yet she uses highly moralistic language about others. She recognises that the doctor who refused to sign her abortion papers was doing so because of his own principles: nonetheless, she insists, ‘he should have signed them’. Years later, making the video, she says she is still so angry that part of her would like to go in and trash the doctor’s surgery (even though she now thinks the abortion was a mistake).

Tracey Emin: Appliqued blankets (various dates) and Knowing my enemy (2002)

There is much in the exhibition to warm to. The first room is dominated by a huge wooden construction of a beach-hut on stilts. All the slats on the pier that leads to it are broken. It is high up, isolated, inaccessible – the perfect retreat that many of us have dreamed of when we have been wounded by the world. The room is hung with embroidered blankets, telling stories of her upbringing: some are warm, others are hurt, accusatory and defiant. Going back into her unhappy experiences at school, a patchwork piece shouts: ‘No. You listen. I am not late. You are lucky.’

Having left school at 13, her spelling is poor. The misspelling in handwritten works on paper may be understood as part of the moment of writing. But misspellings in the embroidered blankets seem more contrived, as if they have been retained as a sign of authenticity: once again they point the viewer not out towards a new idea or understanding, but back to the artist. Perhaps they are also part of the challenge: ‘Why should I conform to your rules [of spelling, in this case]? You should love me as I am.’

There is an air here of art therapy – exorcising your demons through expression. I suspect that Emin remains popular, despite the repetitive nature of her subject-matter, because she gives voice to feelings that many of her generation share – the desire to know and be known, the emptiness of wealth, the fear of failure, the yearning to hold on to people and experiences that time remorselessly takes away. In this way her work can be therapeutic for others too.

But it is not a long-term solution. Looking at these works you see the wisdom of Jesus’ response to the question: ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’ Love God and love your neighbour. Stop focusing on yourself, nursing your wounds, chewing on your anger and bitterness. Forgive others; accept the forgiveness that is offered to you. Let the past go, and see that there is a future. That is where you will find your identity, and hope – and love that lasts.

Tracey Emin: Appliqued blankets (various dates)

All works copyright Tracey Emin.  All photos copyright David Levene.  Reproduced with permission.


© 2011