This month London’s Hayward Galley hosts the scurrilously straight-talking Tracey Emin, in an expansive and beautifully curated major survey of her work titled ‘Love Is What You Want’, open now.
The incomparable ‘Mad Tracey from Margate’ stands in front of a press preview at the launch of her first career retrospective in London, radiant, gracious and, she says, “a little bit embarrassed about the tampons that are in the corner there”. She may appear to have mellowed from her days as a drunken ‘Psycho Slut’ spreading her plague of perversion across the UK into, well, a Tory supporter. The irreverent hellion of the Y.B.A. (Young British Artist) scene of the early 1990s is still alive and kicking, however, as she recently told John Humphrys in a BBC Radio 4 interview, “I always wanted my epitaph to say something like ‘fuck me while I’m sleeping’”.
While we may think there is nothing left to know about the now nearly 50-year-old Emin, having bared all about her tumultuous youth — rape, abortions, her Turkish-Cypriot and English identity — the Hayward presentation weaves an extraordinary narrative of Emin’s trauma and her triumphs. The stirring two-floor space shows the full range of Emin’s work in different media and materials. Needless to say, foul language and genitalia abounds.
The exhibit opens with a bang with the largest ever presentation of Emin’s appliquéd blankets. Massive patchwork quilts are collaged with jarring sewn text of punchy statements, her booming voice ricocheting between the personal and the political. In the upstairs galleries Emin’s collection of monoprints, stitched fabric works and small-scale paintings are more humbly affective. Included is ‘Those who suffer love’ (2009), an animated video depicting a woman composed of only splayed legs and strained hands, furiously masturbating in a tableau that is more clinically mesmerising than erotic.
Room 2, housing 16 of Emin’s neon artworks, is something special. Displayed in a black room, the glowing signs against the dark surface reminiscent of sleazy clubs and wanton nightlife. It serves as the ideal backdrop for showcasing Emin’s illuminated phrases and feelings, ranging from sweet to smutty. Playing on a loop in a nearby stairwell is the comical video Love is a strange thing (2000), based on a dream of Emin’s in which she is propositioned by a dog.
While two iconic pieces are not included, the Turner Prize shortlisted My Bed (1998) and Tent: Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (which was incinerated in the 2004 Momart fire) their absence isn’t terribly missed, as her lesser known works can stand on their own without the hype of her earlier juggernauts.
Moving through the gallery, each of the five different spaces has its own tone, unfolding from unapologetically in your face public declarations to quiet confessionals. Emin’s voice so poignantly engages in themes of lust, loneliness, sex and desire for communication, leaving a resounding sense of pathos. Unfiltered and unpretentious, her art is accessible to the mass public that’s watched on in voyeuristic fascination for over 20 years. Equipped with disarming honesty that cuts right to the heart of human emotion and longing, you can’t help but feel the love for Tracey Emin.
Love Is What You Want runs from 18th May – 29th August 2011 at Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX