Series of appliquéd blankets (various dates), photograph by David Levene
I should start by saying I’m no art critic, and I’m aiming for “layman’s tuppence on art exhibition” rather than Review Show. But anyway here goes. I had been wanting to see Tracey Emin’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery for ages so when the exhibition’s PRs offered me a ticket I jumped at the chance. My mother who was visiting that weekend (although open-minded and generally fabulous) was not quite so keen. The two questions I had going in were:
- Is Tracey Emin really so interesting?
- Is her art any good?
Emin’s art is entirely concentrated on herself – her parents, her sex life, her childhood, body, feelings and thoughts. Of course there is more, an outward glance at the world, but it is pretty self-obsessed stuff. But that doesn’t put me off at all. In fact, it reminded me of Frida Kahlo who I also love, who suffered an incredibly traumatic tram accident as a young girl that left her disabled and because of the gynaecological wounds inflicted on her, she had a lifelong obsession with her body, sex and childbirth.
Salem (2005) foreground. Photo by David Levene
She was a fascinating, complex and beautiful woman Ms Kahlo – I stood before Diego Rivera’s mural of her in Mexico City utterly awestruck – and I find Tracey Emin the same. I think she’s uniquely beautiful and she’s incredibly brave to put her life out there for people to look at and comment on.
Yes, she’s obsessed with sex. But she seems trapped forever in the body of the young girl from Margate who was raped, and then slept around, and then was called a slag, and then conceived a child and aborted a child. She seems to be in the middle of a mixed-up world of child-like loss and pain – an adoration of her father and fixation on school and fitting in – and an adult world of alcohol and sex. The exhibition is incredibly intimate – from letters she wrote to loved ones, and the angry, desperate messages she embroiders on her blankets and writes in neon lights (Fuck Off And Die You Slag / I Do Not Expect To Be A Mother But I Do Expect To Die Alone) – written to who? the world, a man, girls at school? – to her panic every month at the possibility that she might be pregnant.
Series of appliquéd blankets (various dates) and Knowing My Enemy (2002). Photo by David Levene
Some of it is uncomfortable of course. The used and bloody tampons, the video of her talking about her abortion. But much of it is beautiful – I loved the wooden pier and hut she built for her father, the room devoted to her family and friends, her drawings. And more than anything, it is bloody funny. She’s utterly self-deprecating and playful – I loved the neon room with its messages which made me laugh out loud (Is Anal Sex Legal? Is Legal Sex Anal?) , the videos of a bride with money stuck to her dress and her riding a donkey in Margate.
Room of neon lights. Photo by David Levene
What I came away from this exhibition feeling was a real bond to Tracey Emin – I think she’s brilliant and funny, I think she’d be a great mate, a huge amount of fun, but one of those people who’s their own worst enemy, and a bit of a lost soul. More than anything, I felt I could identify with many of the feelings she expresses so openly – the feeling of being young and stupid and judged, having confused and contradictory feelings about love and sex and children, and more than anything the need to be loved. It also gave me a lot to think about – my body and sexuality, how grateful I am for my friends, The Chef and my family. I think even my mum liked it by the end.
Love Is What You Want is on until 29 August 2011 and there are various talks and events throughout the period, as well as exhibition tours on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Thank you very much to Margaret London PR for my complimentary ticket. All photos courtesy of David Levene.
UPDATE 15 June – there is a short film about the exhibition here: