It took me twenty-five years to work out that being myself was actually an alright thing to be. That’s when I stopped making excuses for not doing things I knew would make me uncomfortable and gave in to blissful weekends spent cooking and wandering around galleries, rather than feeling like I should be out being groped and sweated on in a crowded club like I was at seventeen. I’m still twenty-five; this revelation was recent and a long time coming. I suspect it takes other people much less time to accept themselves, and others a lot more. Tracey Emin’s new show, "Love is What you Want", suggests that she’s still not quite there.
To be honest, I’ve never had many positive things to say about Emin and I went to this show expecting to hate it. I’ve always found her work a little too raw, too overtly sexualised and a bit of an unnecessary over-share. I’ve ranted about her never smiling in photographs, being famous for being obscene rather than for the quality of her art, and for differentiating between “artists” and “picture makers”, thereby glorifying the cult of the artist rather than their finished work. Some things, I thought, like your ongoing obsession with your own abortions, are best kept to yourself. But really, why should they be? I cannot speak from experience on abortion, but if something you’ve gone through consumes your thoughts to that extent, shouldn’t you be allowed to talk about it until it eases the pain? Isn’t art actually the perfect medium through which to express how you feel on the inside?
Emin’s show is magnificent in its openness; this is not an artist who holds anything back, and her work is certainly not for the faint hearted. Let’s put it this way – my mother sent me details of the exhibition but she didn’t come with me, and my boyfriend is still recovering from "The History of Painting, Part 1" (1998), which combines enough used tampons and pregnancy tests to terrify any man. But then men are typically a source of pain in Emin’s work, from the brute who raped her at thirteen, to those through whom she tried to reclaim her body during multiple one night stands as a teenager, and finally the boyfriends who caused endless heartbreak as relationship after relationship fell apart. Sexual and emotional rejection, and the on-going mourning of her unborn children dominate Emin’s work, but her pieces don’t incite pity because Emin isn’t a cuddly artist. You don’t want to sit down and have a cosy cuppa with her, but you do hope to God that you don’t go through what she has.
A large area of "Love is What you Want" is devoted to Emin’s neon pieces, which emphasise her need to make a statement, to shock, to make her voice heard above the rabble. These did little for me, primarily because I don’t feel that art needs to shock to be effective. In fact, the work that stuck the most in my mind was Feeling Pregnant (2000), a simple text piece consisting of three framed pieces of A4 paper, on which Emin recounts the routine she goes through before each period: two days of abject terror that she might be pregnant. The show is full of references to her aborted babies, including clothing the artist has made for them, and she has much to say of her violent swings between wanting something to love so much that it would fill up her world, and running from the realities of pregnancy and motherhood. I’m lucky in that I’ve never struggled with whether or not I want a family, but I – like the vast majority of unmarried twenty-somethings – understand that fear of not having control over your own body.
A lot has been – and will be – written about Emin’s work in terms of its ability to horrify, and she certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to the role sex has played in her life. However, the beauty of Emin as an artist is precisely that which we rail against; she empties her soul into her art, whichever medium this may embody, and lays bare her darkest moments and most neurotic thoughts. Most of us spend a great deal of time trying not to look crazy in front of those who are important to us, and find that our best friends and lovers end up being those who look at us at our worst and still love us. "Love is What you Want" certainly didn’t make me want to share my secrets with the world, but it did inspire immense respect for one who is brave enough to do so.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy the Hayward Gallery
All photos David Levene
Images: Installation View: Showing series of appliquéd blankets (various dates) ; Installation View : Showing series of appliquéd blankets (various dates) and Knowing My Enemy (2002); Installation View.