As a 26 year old in 2011, I have missed out on a whole lot of the meaning behind Tracey Emin's work the first time around. I remember her face on tv and in the media - she was hyped as a mouthy, egocentric YBA whose attempts at contemporary art were at best vulgar – key early works such as My bed (1998) complete with crumpled and stained sheets, and the infamous tent Everyone I have ever slept with (1963-1995) come to mind. I confess that I was more vulnerable to the opinions flying about at that time then I was to the sensitivity of her work.
And now in 2011, with the opening of her first major London retrospective Love is what you want, I fear we may witness the same kind of response. I find it fascinating to see just how many people are overwhelmed by Tracey's work, by its hard hitting, in your face approach, namely such pieces as Those who suffer love (2009), an animation comprised of around 200 drawings of a woman masturbating, set off by a sensitive and detailed image of the vagina in thread on the adjacent wall in the upper galleries of the Hayward. Some see nothing more than a self obsessed drama queen lacking in inhibition or ready to do anything for publicity, that seems to be the instinctive reaction many have when confronted with the apparent coarseness of the subject matter that Tracey Emin deals with. Just last night at the preview I overheard guests saying 'well its not something I would collect' and in response to the much anticipated used tampons 'is that really necessary – as a woman I know all too much about that already' from a mature lady to her male companion. I was scoffing inside, thinking come on, get over yourselves guys, it's really not that shocking...
Okay so Tracey's art, on the surface at least, is both a very intimate retelling and a very exposing treatment of her life so far. Her life as a woman that is. The moments she chooses to retell relate to those uncomfortable realities that, as a woman myself, I can understand. Abortion, sex, rape and masturbation are reoccurring themes, as is the concurrent desire and fear of love – evident in the stunning display of appliqué blankets at the entrance and in such pieces as Love is what you want (2011), a neon sign illuminating a message that seems to be meant for all of us, which is so aptly off set by a contorted neon figure, very reminiscent of Munch's The Scream. What seems to be revealed through her very diverse body of work, dating back 20 years, is the less than picture perfect life that Tracey has had so far, a detail that people love to question the authenticity of. I find that kind of questioning that she receives from public and critics rather vulgar to be honest. What I find most telling is the shaky reception her work so often receives from a society still seemingly hung up on, dare I say it, a whole lot of patriarchal values. Her work tells a very important story, one of physical and mental turmoil and of the harsh realities of life as a woman, no wonder it doesn't sit so comfortably with her critics, no one likes the truth and no one likes to hear about suffering, especially from the horse's mouth. But who else is going to tell Tracey's story for her? Or perhaps it's not just her story she's telling?
As a young female artist often dealing in the realms of the confessional myself, and having struggled financially and knowing with all too much vividity those narratives of love, sex and relationship evident throughout the exhibition, I more than empathise with Tracey, I applaud her. She is brave. She is brave enough to be a kind of trailer blazer for the contemporary woman. Following in the footsteps of autobiographical artists such as Louise Bourgeois, her work is insightful and telling of the times we live in – the pressures of family life, of relationships and of the many expectations that come with being a woman. The scariest thing – how many other women are ready to shout her down. I have my theory on this too – the self editing process. We all love to keep our most vulnerable, most emotional and less than 'proper' experiences to ourselves, precisely because to share them makes us vulnerable. As women we have learnt how to keep the details of our sexuality private, our desires, our in-built nature as reproductive beings, and all the mess and upset that can come with that. 'How vulgar!' we might roar when others dare to tread such territory, thinking – stop her, she's revealing all my secrets! Perhaps now our husbands, fathers, bosses or ex boyfriends might think we are all mad women from Margate! Goodness no, sweep it under the rug!
I am surprised when people pretend to be shocked by Tracey's work, or show repulsion toward the endless references to her own vagina, because none of it is particularly unusual or shocking. Tell me which ones of you haven't gone through the 'shit, I might be pregnant' routine, or the 'but I know you loved me' dramas in reference to relationships gone wrong. Some of us have even been lucky enough to experience an abortion.
All in all, it was great to see such a comprehensive retrospective from the talented artist. There was a great juxtaposition of approaches from appliqué and embroidery to letter writing, neon signs, film and memorabilia but the the thread of her work always stayed consistent. I noticed that many visitors found it difficult to look at the artworks objectively, perhaps that is because as a society we are still too close to Tracey's story to see it with any perspective. Tracey will definitely stand the test of time. Her unquestionable draughtsmanship, illustrated in the repeated images of spread legs is very evocative of those positions many of us find ourselves taking up. They must be familiar to men as well, its a kind of shared act of role-play. But Tracey betrays the act, she speaks up, shares the kinds of detail that others would be too scared to expose. That is her real talent. On the surface we see a kind of personal therapy in her work but this urge she has to make public such painfully intimate details helps us all to overcome a shroud of guilt, fear and self-loathing. In the end, Tracey does us all a massive favour.
All photos David Levene.
First written for and published by Run-riot.com