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Tracey Emin: Love Is What You Want

Wednesday 15 June 2011
Words Spindle

‘Love is what you want’ celebrates the career of contemporary controversialist, artist-come-celebrity, Tracey Emin. No introductions are needed here, we are all familiarised, and in some cases desensitised to the self proclaimed ‘slag from Margate’. Since the rise of the uncouth YBA, we have followed Emin on her journey of self exploration and consideration; using only herself as a muse for her Art, we have been subjected to tales of abortion, rape, love and loss a million times over, in a variety of media.

The Hayward gallery plays host to this monographic retrospective, it’s immaculate post modernist white cube interior works dramatically as the back drop for Emin’s blankets, films, neons, paintings and sculptures. The stark white walls deliver a purity that can only be contrasted with the content of the exhibition (cunts, cocks and bodily fluids).

Emin’s somewhat tragic early life is the narrative behind her art work, making her ideal consumption for the gossip-mongering 21st century audience that derive pleasure from reality TV shows in which the people participating are viewed as nothing more as freaks in a circus show. Like these contestants Emin has a sob story. Or five.  She presents herself as an infantile, even basic form; contrived grammatical errors are consistently made throughout the exhibition, childish language is splashed upon her blankets and we are led to believe by these constructions that the Emin we perceive is unedited and raw; she is baring all and shamelessly so. However, every now and then we are able to catch a glimpse of a more refined artist; whether it be her Schiele-esque sketches or her poetic neon slogans, the crassness is replaced with something much deeper… until you come across the display of used tampons!

The characteristic narcissism that remains prominent in Emin’s works can leave her stranded and a little one dimensional. It is hard to distinguish the artist from the art, unless she herself stands as an embodiment. Once the gallery doors have been opened you feel as if you have walked straight into Emin’s head, wandering round her memories, her personal thoughts, her sense of being and after a few minutes it can be quite an uncomfortable experience. You are an invited voyeur, yet it feels an invasion of her personal space. Room after room reiterates insecurities, her self portraits depict an often headless woman with legs spread-eagled – there is nothing erotic about these images, they are clear expressions of the abuse she previously suffered, the often faceless images portray states of mind rather than physical likeness:

‘When I am doing the paintings, I try to detach myself from what I am looking at, but at the same time I know exactly what I am looking at. I’m looking at me in the most intimate way, which I don’t really want to look at or really think about, but try to come to terms with what I dislike about myself so immensely’. Tracey Emin

Although the harrowing narrative is a key element in Emin’s work, her unique brand of droll self mockery is also given a platform: in the film Love is a strange thing Emin is propositioned by a large dog, when she rejects his offers the dog replies reproachfully ‘Tracey, Tracey, you of all people. I never expected you to be prejudiced’.

There is, unfortunately, a persistent nagging feeling that Emin has become a parody, a caricature of her former self. Her work has lost the ‘shock-factor’ appeal it used to have in the 90s, the stories she retells of victimization and insecurity are getting old – especially when you consider the drastic change of lifestyle that has taken place over the last 20 years; she has gone from slapper to celebrity, yet there has been no development in her discourse. It begs the question, how long can this Queen of Britart keep her throne?

Love Is What You Want is on at the Hayward Gallery until August 29th.