This is a very personal, heartfelt exhibition, a life translated into art, and it demands a personal response. If you spend a few hours there and look, or perhaps more importantly read, with an open mind you will learn a great deal about what it means to be Tracey Emin. What makes it successful Art is that you will also learn a great deal about what it means to be a woman. She starts from the nakedly personal and manages to embrace the universal. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is spared. Many of the people visiting were women and the work on show made it possible for them to consider aspects of their lives which too often go unrecognised and unspoken of in what is still a male dominated world. It was incredibly moving to watch a young mother, contented baby in her arms, reading Tracy’s abortion story intently. There were several more babies on show during the afternoon that I visited which isn’t something you see often in a gallery, all of them calm and contented. Emin has had a lot of criticism along with considerable recognition, during her career and much of it has been based on snobbery, misogyny and sheer ignorance. This exhibition, the first major survey of her work so far, is an opportunity for her to run her flag up the mast and celebrate what she has achieved in style. She has grabbed it with both hands. It is the moment where she stakes her claim as a major British artist and finds gold.
I started with the blankets. Each of them has a theme. They are bright and celebratory, flaunting their colours, full of life and detail. It is in that detail that you get the kick in the teeth when you understand the bravery and hurt which is being celebrated and perhaps conquered by them. Emin is a poet as much as an artist. Much of her work is text based and she is able conjure up a whole world with a single phrase.
“Fuck school. Why go somewhere every day to be told you’re late.”
“Does trust come with maturity or is it a kind of fear and lazyness thing that takes over.” “Feeling alone and fucked over is an inevitable state at 13-25-35-70-85.”
“Forget your fear.”
“Yeah we’ve all been there, heaven, just keep loving.”
“She went out like a 40 watt bulb.”
“You dig a hole-put it in the hole and bury it.”
“The past is a heavy place.”
“Every time I feel love I think Christ I’m about to be crucified so I close my eyes and become the cross. So beautiful.”
Hung as a group they are a wonderful achievement, a kind of riff on the banners of churches political parties and trade unions. They are a celebratory record of love, life and hurt.
Next to the banners is a small beach hut on the end of a precarious pier which fills the central space of the gallery. It is called Knowing My Enemy and it recalls her dad’s dream of living in a beach hut by the sea with the sound of the sea around it. It is an unattainable dream and the beach hut is set precariously high and out of reach, the central part of the pier is collapsed with no way up onto it. Total happiness is never possible- we just have to do the best we can with whatever we have. That’s my life up there with its own battered beauty, precarious but not collapsed. It spoke to me of the past too. This was my instant reaction which I wrote down standing next to it.
A past that you can no longer see,
No longer reach.
A past with deceptively coloured curtains
Hiding who knows what else
Behind a firmly closed door.
Oh, I know it’s tempting
But don’t try.
The way up there is precarious
And the path is dangerous.
You’ll be hurt.
Behind that door
Are things best forgotten.
Trust me love……. I know.
There is fun to be had too. I loved the video piece, Love is a Strange Thing, Tracey’s encounter with a mastiff, a dog perfectly cast for his part, large and stately with a jowly mournful face. She greets him, he propositions her, and she declines gracefully on the grounds that he is a dog before moving on. It is funny but it also reminds you that plenty of encounters between two humans are not dissimilar. We all look for love in the wrong places sometimes.
Tracey Emin’s drawing is sometimes compared to Egon Shiele’s and along with text it is the cornerstone of what she does. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition, monoprints, drawings on blankets which have been delicately stitched over afterwards, fragile bird images and a large scale animation, explicit and powerful, built up from drawings of her masturbating.
Two pieces of memorabilia moved me very much. We all mythologise our past as we get older, keeping memories and retelling our life story for ourselves, and a rather beautiful paperweight with a golden object inside it and a set of small ornaments ( mostly Wade Whimsies) in a vitrine tell part of Tracey’s story. The paperweight was given to her by her father and when she said “It’s a paperweight” he said “No, it’s a crown.” He said that he had prayed for her to be a wonderful artist. The whimsies tell a sadder story, one which is very familiar to me. Each day as she came back from swimming Tracey would choose one carefully to buy and bring home. One day she came home to find them all cleared away and her mother waiting. “What am I supposed to do with all this rubbish you keep bringing home?” That hurt has been transferred into art, and while you feel for her there is also a sense of pleasure in seeing that some at least can survive and be celebrated.
There is a wonderful video piece of a conversation with her mother which is the kind of conversation that everyone ought to have with their mother and very few do. It is open, loving, funny, honest and moving and deals with conflicts and tensions between the generations where goodwill and a need to understand each other conflicts with differing experience and expectations to make communication difficult.
The neon pieces are brightly lit tiny poems and my one criticism of the exhibition is that I really wouldn’t have displayed so many of them together. “You forgot to kiss my soul” looks wonderful alone on the dark landing and they would speak more powerfully in their own space.
The final thing that I did was to go out onto one of the Hayward’s balconies in the rain. At first glance you see nothing, but out there, placed seemingly haphazardly and half hidden on the ground, are three tiny beautifully made realistic bronzes, a child’s shoe, a tiny teddy, and a sock. It is a work from 2008, Baby Things. As I looked at them lying forlornly in the rain it made me think of love, loss, and the transient nature of innocence and childhood. Abandoned, disregarded things (and items belonging to small children are often lost and left behind) always have a story to tell. As I stood there two young men came out separately onto the balcony, had a cursory glance around, gave no sign of noticing anything and walked back into the gallery. If that’s not a metaphor I don’t know what is.
There is so much in this exhibition to make you think and to make you feel, beauty, bravery, and laughter- sometimes where it is least likely. Leave your pre conceived ideas about what makes suitable subject matter for art at the door and make yourself open enough and vulnerable enough to appreciate an artist who is prepared to lay herself on the line for what she does. You will find yourself changed if you allow it. And be prepared to do a lot of reading. A cursory glance will never be enough. The devil is in the detail.
Exhibition images used by kind permission of the Hayward gallery.