Tracey Emin and William Blake in focus. Tate Liverpool. 10-03-17.

My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805

Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.

Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.

For You. An installation by Tracey Emin. Liverpool Cathedral. 11-03-17


The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.

It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.

The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.

When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.

Tracey Emin. She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea. Turner Contemporary Gallery. Margate.

It’s all shooting stars.

Tracey Emin, Sex 1 25-11-07 Sydney ©Tracey Emin / Tracey Emin studio

If there is one thing that is certain after seeing Tracey Emin’s exhibition She Lay Down Beneath The Sea at the new Turner Contemporary gallery in her home town of Margate it is this. She can draw. Let nobody be in any doubt about that. She has a fluid, exciting way of taking a line for a walk which really lives on the page. The most interesting thing about this selection of her work, mostly new drawings in what has become her trademark blue, is seeing her work set against erotic drawings by Turner and Rodin in chalk and gouache. When you see them together her work seems to grow directly from their inspiration. Three of her small erotic watercolours (not new work like most of what is on show) are placed directly opposite earlier work from these two great artists. They would not usually be thought of by those who are not art experts as her forerunners but they resonate with them perfectly. Her use of washes in them is very similar to that of Turner, and they have the same sparse, open immediate quality.

Tracey Emin. Laying On Blue. 2011. Gouache-on-paper. Copyright the artist, Courtesy of White Cube Gallery. Photo by Ben Westoby.

I particularly loved the large drawings, embroidered in blue and black, on calico. They are quite pure, minimalist and rhythmic, full of movement and fire. Deep blue Mass, from 2011, has great confidence an expressionist drawing really if there is such a thing, and it was the one thing which I would have loved to bring home. There are also four quite beautiful, subtle tapestries with the same swirling vibrant quality.

Tracey Emin, She Lay down Deep Beneath The Sea, 2012 Neon [aquamarine] © the artist courtesy of White Cube photo: Ben Westoby

There is poetry too, to make you think and wonder. The title of the exhibition itself, She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea, has the contemplative quality of a haiku, as does her drawing I Followed You Into The Water Knowing I Would Never Return. Isn’t that what we all do when we fall in love?

I was fascinated by a small, unremarkable, photograph of a French lake, The Disappearing Lake, which only exists in the winter months each year. In the same room there is a an old steel bath with a stained, creased Union Jack lying in it which has the same title. Is it what you find when everything has been drained away? It is a powerful image and reminded me of the triumphant photo of Tracey holding a flag aloft as she walks down a street naked which was part of her exhibition Love Is What You Want at the Hayward last summer. It felt as though she had now thrown the past aside and moved on.

It is so good to see that she has been able to “come home” and provide an opening exhibition for a sparkling new gallery in her home town. The new building has a perfect site, full of light and sea views, and it suits the simplicity and directness of her work. It is all very much of the moment and of Margate. It was good to hear an older man on the train as I made my way there from Canterbury singing her praises and saying that even though he “didn’t get” her work she had put Margate on the map and he was proud of her. It made a nice change from some of the ignorant and dismissive nonsense that she has had to endure over the years. She has said that this exhibition marks the end of a period in her work, as a coming home after a long absence often does. There will undoubtedly be a lot more to come and it will be fascinating to see what form it takes.

It doesn’t matter if we hate what we are looking at so long as we can really see it. Nobody ever said you have to like art- certainly not all of it- that would be insane. But you do have to see it- not talk about it or watch it on TV. Nothing replaces the act of seeing. Tracey Emin is an artist you can see.”

Jeanette Winterson.

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.

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.

Text based Art at Tate Liverpool. 1-10-10

The poet Carol Ann Duffy has curated a room of text based art at Tate Liverpool and it makes a very interesting exhibition. I suppose the question which comes to mind before you walk in is why doesn’t an artist just write if they are interested in words, but by the time I had made my way through the exhibits I had my answer. It had not occurred to me before, but as I walked round I was reminded that many of my favourite artists use text within their work, as some of them were represented.

The letter cutter and designer David Kindersley’s piece Letters Are Things, Not Pictures Of Things ( something that his mentor Eric Gill said) provided a kind of summary for me. It’s a beautiful work with classical text spelling out the title in pale blue and red. An example of Eric Gill’s own work was also shown, a beautiful exhibit, two classical white stone alphabet tablets, one in relief and one carved into the stone.

Anthony Gormley’s work Bed was also there. He ate his own body weight in toast and the bitten remains of the many slices are arranged to form a bed with the shape of his body delved into it. The toast had gained a wonderful brown toned colour range in time, like old worn tiles and bricks.

There were some examples from Gillian Wearing’s Signs series, including my favourite; a well dressed half smiling man in a suit holding up a sign saying “I’m Desperate” ( I have always wondered why he felt like that when he seems so together which is the whole point of course) and one that I hadn’t seen before, a tattooed man holding up a sign “I have been certified as mildly insane.” I like the fact that he describes his diagnosis so meticulously. It shows that he was being truthful and not just messing around. The full title of the series is Signs that say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. We all spend our lives keeping up appearances of one kind or another and Gillian Wearing found a perfect way of illustrating the tension between how we are and how we allow ourselves to seem. It is a work which has stood the test of time and still works now thanks to the fact that it says something universal about being human.

Tracey Emin’s pink neon sign in her own handwriting “Is Legal Sex anal?/Is Anal Sex Legal?” is very striking although I’m not sure that I need to know the answer. Tracey Emin gets a lot of flak for being too personal in her work and using her own life too much but that is exactly why I like what she does. She has the courage to make herself vulnerable and use all aspects of her life, both the admirable and the not so admirable. I respect that.

The prize for most words goes to Don’t Look Back by Fiona Banner, which is a written record of Bob Dylan’s first British tour in 1965, a mass of simple back capitals on a brown background which covers a whole wall. I spent some time looking at it trying to work out what it was trying to do and beyond a few thoughts about its monumental scale paying tribute to an artist who is idolised obsessively by his fans, I don’t think I quite got there.

My favourite piece was by the wonderful Richard Long. “Two straight twelve mile walks on Dartmoor, England”. In beautiful simple clear text it shows a list of landmarks which he saw on his walks accompanied by a series of short descriptive phrases ( “full moon rising” ) which distilled his experience into a single frame. Long’s art is always straight to the point, and it is fascinating how a few words of text in a clear plain background can bring the reader into the heart of what was a very sustained physical experience for the artist.

There always has to be one thing which completely passes you by in any contemporary art exhibition and for me, in this exhibition, it was Bruce Nauman’s “Good Boy Bad boy”. Two television screens showed a man and a woman ranting simultaneously in a way which meant nothing to me, in fact worse than that I found it profoundly irritating.

This exhibition was fascinating to someone like me who is trying to write. Words can, of course, make pictures of their own, but in the hands of an artist they can become a visual poem which is far more than the sum of it’s parts.

Photos are included by kind permission of the Tate Archive and are the copyright of the artists concerned.