I was eleven years old when I first became aware of Tracey Emin’s work, and even then I was highly sceptical. “My Bed” was being shown at the Tate. Whilst I’ll readily admit that a lot of the symbolism was lost on me as a child, I’m still not overwhelmed. And so it was with cynicism, and curiosity, that I visited the latest exhibition of her work, “Love is what you want” at the Hayward Gallery. Rarely have I been so emotionally unprepared.
The first room shows a range of Emin’s famous blankets, created at various points in her life. She uses these to express her anguish about school (for which she was always late), the men in her life and how she is perceived as a result of her interactions with them. She also displays more political messages about the Falklands war, and, less directly, globalisation. She uses beautiful materials to convey shocking messages. I saw her point, but I still thought her use of bad language was fairly gratuitous. Ever the pedant, I also objected to the poor spelling. I’m aware that she dropped out of school at 13, but I just don’t think that should be glorified. That’s probably just me though.
The main exhibit in that first room was a shack attached to a broken pier. That was a powerful image, and was said to be based on a letter from her father, in which he discussed addiction. The letter is on display in the gallery. She says that this piece conveys her longing for somewhere safe where she could go.
I was more impressed by the next room, which was a series of neon signs bearing provocative messages. The first was her 2004 work “Meet me in Heaven I will wait for you.” It was so simple, and yet so beautiful. The neon was supposed to recall the seediness of the Margate where she grew up, but for Emin it represented excitement and glamour. The way it was arranged reminded me of my own experiences in LA, where the use of neon is equally abundant. My favourite piece from that room was from 2001, and read “Life without you Never”. It was a defiant statement of love, and need. I found such stark acknowledgement of human experience far more affecting than the use of profanities.
There followed a series of three films, each of which featured Emin alone. The first, entitled “Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money” reflected the Turkish tradition of attaching bank notes to a wedding dress. Emin ran through the desert to the theme from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. The second showed her riding a horse on the beach and was called “Riding for a Fall.” The final film was more personal. She described her experience of being shamed at a dance competition and running from men who had abused her. This was set to footage which showed Margate at that time.
The next room showed a variety of her works. These conveyed her feelings after being raped, and her abortion. The most moving part of the exhibition was a film displayed near its end, which was called “How it feels”. The subject of this film was Emin’s abortion, and how it had originally failed. I hated it at the beginning, as she seemed to feel that she had a right to abortion on demand and that anyone who failed to give her exactly what she wanted had acted in an “unforgiveable” way. I grew extremely sympathetic, though, as she elaborated on her plight and the illness and emotional distress she had suffered. For a film which had the potential to inspire such controversy, there was an extreme sense of pathos as it reached its end. She also used the end of this film to examine the nature of art. Unlike the aesthetes whose work I had perused the day before, she felt that art could not exist for its own sake, but had to convey a deeper meaning.
Yes, the exhibition was enormously self-referential, but so much of art is. It was decidedly introspective, but it touched on universal experiences. In a sense, her work raised awareness of these issues and encouraged people to discuss them more openly. At first I thought it was solipsistic, but as I carried on, I found her style touchingly intimate. It seemed like she was speaking to me as one young woman to another. I don’t think it would have had such a profound effect had I not gone alone, but I was fighting back tears as I left.