Tracey Emin at the Hayward

Filed in Reviews by on May 19, 2011

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want

Hayward Gallery

18 May to 29 August 2011


Since Tracey Emin first rose to public prominence in the Sensation exhibition of 1997, she has become something of a national institution. She was a Turner Prize nominee in 1999 and in 2007 not only was she chosen to represent the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale but she was elected by her distinguished peers as a Royal Academician.

But for some she has been a villain and a hate figure, more infamous than justly famous. She has been vilified by the press, the general public and the conservative establishment, often drawing criticism not just for her own work but acting as a lightning conductor for what is perceived by some as the inanity, irrelevance and excesses of contemporary art. We have all had an unmade bed at one time or another and not all of us are blessed with the insight to understand how or why Tracey Emin’s might be a work if art. It may have something to do with the fact that the unmade bed was, in a creative sense, the very opposite of unmade. It may also have something to do with the fact that the acts of conceiving the unmade bed as art and exhibiting it as such transformed it alchemically into art. Duchamp’s ideas are taking a long time to catch on in public perception.

There may be no unmade beds in this exhibition but Emin’s preoccupation with material derived from the most intimate parts of her private life is, as always, much in evidence. For me, some of the most striking exhibits are the embroidered blankets. Items that we would normally associate with cosy domestic comfort are covered like anarchic samplers with a combination of misspelled slogans, declarations and accusations, scraps of conversation and throwaway remarks, all expressing various forms of existential angst.

These shocking contradictions and contrasts are not only a core feature of Emin’s work; they seem to be at the heart of Emin’s personality as an artist and a woman. Tracey Emin may be a wealthy, successful, respected Royal Academician but she is also “Mad Tracey from Margate”, “Pysco Slut”, a teenage victim of rape and survivor of abortions. And it has to be said that she has carved out her career without an abundance of obvious technical skill. For her Turner Prize entry, she produced a series of paintings in response to criticisms that painting no longer seemed to feature in the competition, but her paintings are not painterly and her drawings show little skill as a draughtswoman. While many of her works rely very heavily on the written word, she admits that she has not mastered the basics of spelling and grammar.

If she is successful as an artist, and I believe that she is, it is not because she has mastered the medium but because she has mastered the message she intends it to convey. She has learned to communicate clearly and completely with the tools she has at her disposal.

What I admire most about Tracey Emin is the way that she has used the talent and skills she has and refused to be inhibited or cowed by the realisation that they are less than perfect. She has transformed the troubled and very ordinary Mad Tracey from Margate into the best of all possible Tracey Emins. In the process she has produced a notable, moving and internally consistent body of work. Emin is a great example of the transformative nature of art and this exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity to see the work of a truly extraordinary artist.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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