Monday, July 04, 2011

Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want

Now showing at the Hayward Gallery through August, this Tracey Emin retrospective is a dizzying mass of wood, neon, cut-up clothing and found objects, all filtered through the lens of La Emin. Which isn't to say Love Is What You Want is bad (Brian Sewell's bilious review notwithstanding). But, given Emin's raddled image and how much the prospective visitor thinks s/he knows about the artist, it is illuminating.

Walking through the warren of rooms on multiple levels, I tried to recall what other Emin artwork I had seen over the years and found myself faltering. Was it White Cube in the noughties? Tate Modern in the '90s? Hadn't I seen that shack before? Or was it on the internet? I really couldn't recall, as Emin has such a high profile, her actual art gets less scrutiny than her life.

But, seeing the works close up (or as close up as one can when so many are under glass--peering through a glass case to fathom tiny printed letters, I was chastised by a guard for "leaning on" the glass; my notebook may have brushed it in passing, but I put no weight on it whatsoever), I found myself warming to some and was left indifferent by others. The drawings, for instance, didn't hold my interest nearly as much as the quilts, cut from the clothing of loved ones and stitched with Emin's texts, many of which seem to be messages to herself. Some are funny, some poignant, but, all demand to be considered.

The neon works are less emotive, but also notable, even if only to punctuate the exhibit. A pity so many were stacked up in one place, giving the black corridor the look of Soho on a Saturday night.

What really startled me as I entered each room was the array of people sketching. Even in rooms showing films, there were earnest people sitting cross-legged in dark corners, sketching away. For once, as I scribbled my observations in my notebook, I didn't feel so out of place. Was it student day or is every day like this?

Themes that emerged were Emin's ambivalence over her abortions; her conflicted relationships with family members; her grappling with the past; and her quest for love, of herself and others. In the video work, "Conversation with My Mum", Emin and her mother sit at a table, munching chocolates and smoking while debating whether the younger Emin should or should not have a baby. I sat there, jaw dropped, as the older Emin proffered words of wisdom to her daughter along the line of: "Every woman who doesn't have one wants to have a baby" and "Having a baby would ruin your life." Contradiction obviously runs in the family.

Wood and spirals leapt out at me. The first she admires for its weathered, natural qualities and the second, I am guessing, because it moves inward as it travels.

I also discovered that 3 July is Tracey Emin's birthday, celebrated in 1993 with the closing of her enterprise with Sarah Lucas, The Shop, which is recalled here with a jumble of objects in a case, including a box with the ashes of the unsold goods. This was juxtaposed with the work recalling her beloved nan, "There's a lot of money in chairs", with text appliqued to the back of an antique chair Emin took on tour in the USA.

The Hayward is incorporating a lot of social media into this exhibit, including an intriguing Tracey Tuesdays feature, in which visitors can ask Tracey Emin questions and get responses on Facebook. Before I visited the exhibit, I checked out the page and was amused to see some of Emin's responses, including advice on where to eat in Margate.

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