SUMMER TRIP 2: How sometimes you have to admit that you were wrong (Tracey Emin, ‘Love is what you want’, Hayward Gallery, London)

People like you need to fuck people like me. There I was, looking at that blue neon sign, thinking: what will happen if I use that one as an opening line, next time I go to a party? It was not the last time Tracey Emin would make me smile. And it certainly wasn’t the last time I would come across explicit language or images. Tracey Emin, right? But if you happen to be in London this month, do visit Emin’s retrospective Love is what you want (Hayward Gallery; through August 29). You might be surprised by what you see. Just as I was. In a big way.

Sometimes an exhibition can change your perception of an artist completely. Take Tracey Emin for instance. I always thought of her as this foul-mouthed, drunk, attention seeking drama queen, shamelessly exploiting her private life for works of art that haven’t got much more to offer than… an artist shamelessly exploiting her private life for her works of art. Or as one critic wrote: ‘She’s become the star of her own soap opera’. But the more I saw of Love is what you want (she took the title from a line from the Marc Bolan song Planet Queen), the more I got intrigued by and drawn into Emin’s universe.

Some essentials first maybe? Tracey Emin became known as one of the YBAs, the Young British Artists (she now says she’s part of the MBA’s, the middle-aged British artists), or the Freeze group of 16, with Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas. Drop Hirst’s name and most people will immediately think of his shark, drop Emin’s and two works of art spring to mind: her bed (now owned by Charles Saatchi, image here) and her tent (Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995, burned in a warehouse fire in London in 2004, image here). Her mother is British and her dad is from Cyprus. She’s gained notoriety as ‘the unrivalled art queen of the media’, and for using her turbulent life (rape, abortion) for her art.

As she herself proudly points out, she’s also a well-educated artist. And that’s one of the things you tend to forget, with all that fuss about her rants obscuring the view, I realized, while I was walking from room to room at the Hayward Gallery. She sure knows how to draw, for instance (she says she’s made more than 7.000 over the past 20 years). And there’s an really interesting variety of works of art. Giant embroidered quilts, neon signs, big installations, videos, drawings, paintings, and much more.

Sure, there’s an overload of works referring to sex, abortion and other events in Emin’s life, and some of it is too easy, but nevertheless, the more I discovered about Emin’s universe, the more I became intrigued and impressed. Mission accomplished. Because as Emin says: ‘I hope people come out thinking I’m a better artist than when they went in.’
But I do think I’m on Laura Cumming’s side too, when she writes in her review in The Observer:  ‘But as the agonies of youth are passing, her work does not seem to pass accordingly from intensity to profundity. Either it, or she, remains in arrested development’.
(You’ll find that interesting review here.)

More info about the exhibition and images here. You’ll find two interviews with Emin about the show, here and here.

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