Much has been written about Tracey Emin’s life – which is hardly surprising, given that it’s the subject matter of her work. Yet so much of this commentary employs a type of sensationalism whereby Emin is judged on her behaviour (or misbehaviour), creating a set of character traits (e.g. she is a sex-obsessed narcissist) that have become a form of currency when discussing her. These are then deployed to support criticisms of her work. Of course, Emin has wilfully attempted to create her own myth, but her status as a media pundit has also contributed to this reception. And as the yBas swiftly transformed from entrepreneurial underdogs into wealthy art stars, a backlash ensued from which few have emerged unscathed: Sarah Lucas has only recently regained critical support while Damien Hirst is generally considered to embody all that is wrong with art production today.
Curated by Cliff Lauson and Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective spanned Emin’s entire career, displaying work from the beginning of the 1990s to the present day, showcasing trademark neons, quilts, drawings, sculptures and videos. In the first space was installed Knowing My Enemy (2002), a ramshackle beach hut from her hometown of Margate – a lonely ready-made monument. Emin has described the work as an homage to her father, a place where she could imagine him being happy. Here Knowing My Enemy was presented as emblematic of their distant relationship: hung nearby was a letter from her father detailing the loss of his virginity to a masseur when he was 12, followed by his descent into alcoholism. These highly sexual descriptions felt taboo, especially when hung directly next to a display of Emin’s quilts, which for the most part deal with obsessive sexual relationships (Psychoslut, 1999, reads ‘I didn’t know I had to ask to share your life’).
Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) echoed throughout the lower galleries. It is the soundtrack to the video Sometimes the dress is worth more than the money (2000–1), which depicts Emin, a triumphant anti-hero, running through a barren Moroccan landscape in a white wedding dress covered in money, and was screened next to a blacked-out alleyway of glowing neons, displaying slogans such as ‘PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME’. Displayed in this way these were more Amsterdam sex shop than White Cube gallery. A series of films followed, including Why I never became a dancer (1995) and Riding for a fall (1998): funny and self-deprecating, Emin sharply dissects gender stereotypes, even as the tragic story of her teenage rape unfolds in Why I never became a dancer.
In the third ground-floor space were multiple vitrines containing documentation and ephemera from Emin’s early entrepreneurial ventures. These included The Tracey Emin Museum (1995–7), a space she set up in a disused shop on Waterloo Road (part studio, part gallery, an ironic early gesture towards her ‘self’ as art work), and The Shop, her 1993 collaboration with Lucas which posited the fledgling artists as businesswomen, cutting out the role of art-dealer entirely – an act that can also be read in its totality as a performance in which Emin and Lucas lived as the art work. Another neat touch was the inclusion of paste-ups of newspaper articles by and about Emin in the foyer and catalogue, going some way to acknowledging her media persona as another creation within a larger project.
In the upper galleries, the joyfully colourful quilts and neons were replaced by white-on-white versions. Alongside groups of early drawings were a series of small masturbation paintings composed of pastels in the palest yellows, pinks and whites, displayed around the frenetic animation Those who suffer love (2009): a large-scale projection in the centre of the room in which both hands fast-forward around a vagina from behind and above, legs sprawled, triangular breasts pert, face obscured, backing onto a white neon from 1998 stating ‘MY CUNT IS WET WITH FEAR’. Here even this paradoxical statement felt mute, a silent ghost of something past – as if Emin’s version of Pompeii, where the technicolour glory of life has been preserved for eternity under a layer of white ash.
The title of the exhibition – ‘Love is What You Want’ – was not subtle, but neither is the work. And this is where the pleasure (or pain) in Emin’s output lies: it is blunt, raw, embarrassing, funny. If it is sometimes clichéd, this is because it addresses the messy reality of being a human being. I was left wondering why expressing emotion is so often considered the antithesis of ‘good’ art today. From the early days of Fluxus to the performed ‘social interaction’ of Relational Aesthetics, artists have been attempting to bridge the gap between art and life for at least 50 years. So instead of a career based solely upon masturbation (and I mean self-stimulation in the widest sense), I would argue that Emin’s work fuses her art and life in an extremely effective way: while her work sometimes aches with ‘authenticity’, her interrogations of commerce and the art market through the ‘museum’ and ‘shop’, along with Emin merchandise and the more recent business venture Emin International, have a distinctly Warholian vibe to them.
We are at a point where only the more extreme versions of female sexuality are applauded: at one end a Duchess, Kate Middleton (chaste, slim, demurely dressed, trained in etiquette and blow-dried to within an inch of her life), at the other, Lady Gaga (who flaunts a highly staged and contrived version of female sexuality, essentially a form of drag). Emin, on the other hand – who often sports a good blow-dry, yet likes to show her bra and admits she enjoys sex – is routinely chastised for all that is wrong with women today. Whether you like her work or not, Emin is a highly successful artist who has not only navigated a complicated life but has made some interesting art about it – and what the hell is wrong with that?