A poem for Tracey.

Appliquéd blankets (various dates) and Knowing My Enemy (2002) photograph by David Levine.

A few lines written while standing in front of Tracey Emin’s work, Knowing My  Enemy.

A past that you can no longer see, too high to reach.
A past with deceptively coloured curtains hiding who knows what else
Behind a firmly locked door.

Oh, I know it’s tempting but don’t try.
The way up there is precarious, almost unattainable.

You’ll be hurt.

Behind that door are things best forgotten.
Trust me, love……. I know.

Pat Rogers.

Hayward Gallery. 19.07.11

These words were chosen to be stencilled onto the wall of the Hayward Gallery close to Knowing My Enemy during Tracey Emin’s exhibition Love Is What You Want in Summer 2011.

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Me and Tracey. It’s personal. Love is What You Want. Hayward Gallery 19-07-11

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.

Appliquéd blankets (various dates) and Knowing My Enemy (2002) photograph by David Levine.

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.”
“Just cry.”
“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
Almost unattainable
And the path is dangerous.
You’ll be hurt.
Behind that door
Are things best forgotten.
Trust me love……. I know.

White Rose (2007) Photograph by David Levine

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.

Mother, Father, Children (2011) Photograph by David Levine.

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.

Neons (various dates) Photograph by David Levine.

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.

Walking in my Mind. Hayward Gallery. 21-07-09

by Chiharu Shiota 塩田千春

This was a lovely idea. A group of artists were each given a room in the Hayward to fill. This simple premise gave the exhibition a playful quality, and a diversity, which I really liked. Some of it didn’t work for me but I suppose that was inevitable.
My favourite room was After the Dream by Chiharu Shiota. It was beautiful and dreamlike. You walked around the room through a curving tunnel made out of a cats cradle web, formed from dark string. In the centre of the room, viewed through the cats cradle, were five plain, papery, delicate dresses with the sleeves lifted towards each other, facing inwards, as though they were taking part in a still dance. It was like something from a fairytale and children were enjoying running round it while adults walked quietly with a sense of wonder. Shiota calls what she does drawing in the air and that describes it well.

Photo copyright Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

I also liked Thomas Hirschhorn’s room, Cavemanman. This was most definitely a return to childhood, an artists superden, a trail with four open spaces, caverns made from flattened cardboard boxes and masking tape. It seemed huge and had turning corners and ups and downs so that you made surprising discoveries as you went along and didn’t know what to expect or really understand what you were seeing. You had to guess and there were no right answers. When I was seven or eight I would have been beyond ecstatic to be allowed to make something like this!
I was looking forward to Yayoi Kusama’s room too, full of green turf and red spots and the trees along the south bank looked great with their flamboyant red spotted trunks.

YNG (Nara, Yoshitomo + graf) My Drawing Room (bedroom included) 2008 mixed media Photo by Keizo Kioku

Another thing which would have delighted me even more as a seven year old than it did now was Yoshitomo Nara‘s room, My Drawing Room, a small Japanese wendy house filled with everything he would have around him to work. It was as if he had just slipped out for a moment and we were allowed to sneak close, look though the windows and snoop.
Pipilotti Rist had made a room full of dreams and nightmares. A dark space where you sat and were spoken to by projected floating body parts, slowly moving and distorting thorough space. It was surreal and beautiful and distinctly odd. The kind of thing you half remember when you wake up, something which almost makes sense and makes you feel there is a secret there which you are almost grasping the meaning of.
I have been wondering what I would do with an empty room at the Hayward ever since.