I think I picked the worst day weather-wise to visit this exhibition. Yesterday, disregarding the weather forecast, and with eternal optimism, I hadn’t dressed for what was to come – after all it hadn’t rained for ages. The wind blew my dress like Marilyn’s in The Seven Year Itch and I tried hard not to flash the whole of London. As I ran through London’s streets, squelching around in my stilettos, avoiding flooded drains, the driving rain made me look like a drowned rat.
What better refuge than the Hayward, or so I thought. I have always been an Emin fan. I remember writing at school about the re-emergence of feminine crafts in the visual arts with an in-depth discussion of Emin’s quilts so now that she is a ‘grande dame’ I was eagerly anticipating this mid-career retrospective, the biggest show of her work to date.
The show starts strongly, opening with 12 of Emin’s quilts, hung two deep on the lofty Hayward walls. If you aren’t altogether familiar with Emin’s work, you’ll quickly get the idea – they are real, dirty, rude and explicit. In my opinion, these are the best works on display, the beautiful blanket stitch framing the sordid content surrounded by delicate appliquéd pattern work.
Emin’s appliquéd quilts. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The room is dominated by Knowing my Enemy (2002), a derelict wooden pier with an unstable hut at the end; the structure seems precarious, reminiscent of the Kent coast line, teetering in a by-gone era. The room is illuminated by a pink glow from one of her neons, Meet me in Heaven and I will wait for you. Alas, the strength of this spectacular installation was not to continue.
Next, her amassed neon works create a corridor of smut. Neon is commonly associated with advertising – indeed, Emin first used this media to advertise her own shop. Now she uses it to advertise those things that are unadvertisable, gesturing to clubs and amusement arcades – a barrage of abuse attacking the Margate she left behind and now claims to love. This method no longer shocks; it has become staid and kitsch.
Neon works. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.
Music from the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, accompanying one of Emin’s video works, resonates around the entire gallery. Sadly, I do indeed mean entire. At first this is effective but, after a while, when the theme is drumming in your head around the whole exhibition, it becomes annoying, and apparent that it is far too loud.
Tracey Emin has never been one to hold back, in fact we know everything about her life – her art is about revealing herself. Through this exhibition, however, we swiftly realise that Emin has never been able to cast off the negative shackles of her youth. Her film Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British dancing championship. While she danced, a gang of local boys she had slept with began chanting ‘Slag Slag Slag’ so loudly that she ran from the dance floor – her dancing career finished, she became an artist. This video ends with Emin dancing triumphant saying ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you’. But there’s nothing triumphant about the work or this dedication. In fact, it’s rather sad.
Why I Never Became A Dancer, 1995. Image via www.loveiswhatyouwant.com.
In whichever of the many media that Emin has worked, she has always been self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-pitying. In the works of her masturbating she is even self-satisfying. Emin’s spindly drawings, watercolours and embroideries are dotted throughout the exhibition, the majority featuring her favourite subject of a woman (most probably herself), legs spread-eagled, masturbating. For me, one work takes her self-aggrandisement a step too far. Presented in glass cases are a series of hospital nametags, pregnancy tests, plasters pills and…old tampons. Emin herself has said that she’s a little bit embarrassed by this work and now thinks she should have cast them. Maybe this would have helped but, as it remains, these disgusting memorials to Emin’s troubled journey bear more comparison to an over-flowing sanitary bin in the ladies’ loos than art works to gaze upon and contemplate.
The History of Painting, Part I, 1999. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.
The second half of the show, upstairs and outside at the Hayward, presents works from the last decade and these are particularly weak with no real impact.
Sculptures on the outside terraces. Own photograph.
There can be no doubt that Emin is a pioneering female artist but she’s made her point. This mish-mash of work may have once been shocking but repetition has weakened the effect. We’ve seen photos of Emin touching herself, we’ve seen the intentionally badly-spelt and hurriedly-scrawled expletives, we’ve seen all of Emin before.
Emin wants the show to focus on love but the only love we see is her narcissism. The exhibition acts as a confessional, looking at the young slutty girl from Margate who became a celebrity, the queen of the British art world, suffering abortion, rape, alcoholism and various other trials along the way. We have been there throughout.
Tracey Emin. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Individually, some of her works are exciting and controversial but putting them together like this makes you sigh at their repetitive nature. Has Emin only had one idea in the past 20 years? There is nothing more to many of these works than shock and shock is a quick reaction, one without long-lasting resonant impact.
No doubt most people will love this exhibition; Emin is a celebrity artist and people will flock to it. I wanted to like the show but I left disappointed by this boring exhibition. Tracey Emin’s work is about Tracey Emin. It is about revealing herself. But sadly, she revealed herself long ago and doesn’t seem to have done much with her time since.
Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 29th August 2011, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.