A review by Bernie Whelan for EXTRA! EXTRA!



Tracey Emin

Love is What You Want



Hayward Gallery
18 May to 29 Aug  2011

Suffering and degradation are not very positive experiences in themselves on which to build identity, whether the emphasis is put on what is done to a passive, victimised self or on the active responses to suffering which might turn the relationship of object to subject into a two way street. Tracey Emin's experiences of rape, abortion and mechanical sex are the subject of much of her work, collected together at the Hayward Gallery for this major retrospective. It includes her used condoms, tampons and contraceptive coil, her 12 huge appliquéd blankets appearing in the first room with a new wooden sculpture of a partially collapsed pier called 'Knowing my Enemy', the title referring to something her father once said. Above this looms a neon sign 'Meet me in heaven, I will wait for you' (2004).

A collection of neon signs in her handwriting are on display in a darkened, nightclub-ish corridor, including the pink heart surrounding the title text. Other linked rooms show the films, one a subversive piece about her being propositioned by a dog ('Love is a strange thing', 2000) inspired by a dream where the dog reproached her 'Tracey, Tracey, you of all people, I never expected you to be so prejudiced'. The sheer narcissism of this show is unmitigated by attempts at transcendence in her neon texts about different kinds of love or in film, where she is shown smugly riding a pony on Margate sands or running about in a Turkish wedding dress covered in money to a Spaghetti Western soundtrack or celebrating her wealth and success as an artist by dancing in triumphant victory saying 'This one's for you boys!' after relating how many of the Margate boys she'd slept with who’d publicly humiliated her by chanting 'slag' at her in a dance competition ('Why I never became a dancer' 1995). The 'playful and ironic wit' promised in the programme often felt more like spite. They do say the best revenge to take on your enemies is to live well and Tracey Emin reminds her audience at every opportunity that she makes a very good living indeed.

Various spread-legged drawings in an upstairs room surround one jumpy animated piece made from 200 drawings of her in the same position, masturbating ('Those that suffer love', 2009) followed by some faceless and crude sexually explicit paintings displayed among other pieces of more abstract driftwood sculpture and child sized furniture. The remains of 'The Shop', a money-making enterprise with Sara Lucas and some family memorabilia redolent of her early years in Margate are displayed in the large room where she proudly opened the exhibition with a speech, defending the patronage of Louis Vuitton who is selling some of her work in the New Bond Street shop and extolling the YBA's contribution to art as 'the soul of Britain'. She was bumptious and high on an earlier interview with John Humphreys, 'Did anyone hear me on the Today programme? Lovers!' This show is being well received, nothing succeeds like success. However, neither the famous unmade bed, soon to be shown by early patron Charles Saatchi nor the appliquéd tent of everyone she ever slept with, lost in a fire, are shown here although she described them as 'seminal' works which changed the way art is understood.

Tracey Emin's work is symbolic of the diminished subjectivity which dominates contemporary life, where suffering in itself confers authority onto the victim. Nursing a wounded attachment to degrading experiences makes a lot of sense under these conditions. In 'How it feels' (1996), Emin returns to the doctor's surgery where her abortion was arranged, working up the emotions of anger and pain again in an interview where we only see her defiant face set against London's busy streets and parks. She appeared most coherent in this film when she insisted that not wanting to have a child and wanting an abortion are two very different things, but her contempt for people who do have children because they want power over something small as she fed a grey squirrel was anti-human and puerile. The films, like the neon signs, are adolescent, superficial and without artistic merit. Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct, 2009) says ‘The kitsch object openly declares itself to be “beautiful”, “profound”, “moving” or “important”. But it does not bother trying to achieve these qualities, because it is actually about its audience, or its owner. The ultimate reference point for kitsch is always me: my needs, my tastes, my deep feelings.... in this respect, readymade knockoffs such as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst’s shark... smell suspiciously of kitsch, as does the turgid prose of critics who take them so seriously. But then kitsch, money, flattery, and careerism are inevitably linked in the art world. Kitsch as pretentious, self-serving tripe can show up anywhere, even in cutting-edge dealer-galleries. It is not just for the middle class living rooms so despised by the art elite.’ These are harsh words, but it is a fair question. Is this art, or kitsch?

The experience of viewing her work together in this show feels a bit like watching 'The only way is Essex' or 'Big Brother' in that you really wish she wouldn't keep doing the things she does so publicly, but that is the point of her work, she says she is interested in revealing secrets, 'cracking them open and revealing things - like Pandora's box' except all that's in the box is Tracey Emin. You get a sense of the utterly unrelieved individual, one without any insulation from the alienating effects of contemporary culture and one who is prepared to go 'all the way' in exhibiting the corrosive effects of this on the self. This is interesting if you believe that proclaiming personal and sexual identity today is as good as it gets. Personally, I'm hoping for something more, from both art and life.


Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX

Open 10am -6pm (daily)
Open Thursday and Fridays until 8 pm

£8.00 (including £1 voluntary gift aid donation**)
Booking Fee: £1.75 (Members £0.00)
Concessions: Seniors £7; Students £6; Young People 12-18 £5.50 (including £1 voluntary gift aid donation**)


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