Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as “natural patrons” of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.
I first met Tracey Emin when I went to interview her for Time Out at her audaciously named The Tracey Emin Museum on Waterloo Road in the mid 1990s. She was young, slightly cookie and evidently suffering from a bit of a hangover but there was something engaging about Mad Tracey from Margate with her Tammy Wynette sentimentality and her wonky teeth dancing around the space in her short skirt and bare feet amid pieces of unfinished art and scraps of confessional writing. Fresh from running a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London with her fellow artist Sarah Lucas where thy sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with “I'm so fucky”, or “fucking useless”, her work seemed confrontational and challenging; shoving her dysfunctional private life in everyone’s faces. She wore her heart and her hangovers on her sleeve, hitting a wider public consciousness when, in an arguably brilliant (if unintentional) PR stunt, she mouthed off drunk on live TV. It was not that she was saying anything particularly original in her work but that she has had a genius for voicing the emotional concerns and obsessions of young women. This was Bridget Jones and Amy Winehouse made visual.
Emin’s work grew from the fertile cultural soil of 70s feminism that produced novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Mary Kelly’s installations displaying soiled nappies. Other women responded to the work not because it was high art but because it reminded them of the emotional chaos of their own lives. Her early blankets made and stitched herself rather than, as now, by assistants – the first Hotel International 1993 was made in response to a request for a CV– have a genuine rawness. Like a teenage girl’s private diary they are full of self-pity, anger and poignancy as they assault the viewer with phrases in dyslexic script such as ‘youre good in bed’ or ‘at the age of 13 why the hell should I trust anyone. No fucking way.’ In Pysco slut 1999, where she announces she hasn’t had sex for three days, a damaged psyche can be seen trying to make sense of an unforgiving world through the medium of art. While I do not expect, 2002 is a painful meditation on motherhood (Emin is childless) where she says“I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone.”
She has been extremely clever in collecting the detritus from her life: the needles and medical paraphenalia from her abortion, the tiny china dogs and knickknacks bought with her dinner money as an unhappy child in Margate and reassembling them as art. But the more self-conscious the works become and the further away they move from the secret contents of a shoebox of adolescent keepsakes, the less plausible and more emotionally manipulative they become.
Further into the Hayward Gallery there is a case containing her used tampons. In an accompanying text she tells how she never bled much to begin with, and now bleeds even less. That’s because she is now 47 and verging on the menopause. But there is a queasy feeling that this is all just too much information. The truth is I don’t honestly care very much about Tracey’s waning menstrual cycle while other less privileged women (she is now very rich) of the same age are worrying about whether their kids are going to pass their exams or are smoking too much dope. At an age when it might become her to do otherwise Tracey is still fixated on Tracey.
Her genius for self promotion is evident in the project when she sought financial support for her work by sending out 80 letters asking friends to invest £10 in her creative potential. In return subscribers received regular pieces of correspondence that along with other personal ephemera have become art works that are displayed here and are now, no doubt, worth a great deal of money. But it is the body that is her true territory as in the photograph of her shoving coins into her cunt like in an demented version of Titian’s Danae and the Shower of Gold or the video of her masturbating, long legs splayed, like some animated Egon Schiele drawing. It is also her less sensational paintings that are the most resonate and serious works. She is, in fact, an interesting painter. In these small-scale subdued, yet expressionistic works, where the subject (herself) is often faceless, there is a subtlety and poetic ambivalence rarely achieved in her more ‘sensational’ installations.
There is no doubt that this exhibition will be popular. The private view was packed and when I went back again in order to write this it was heaving. There is nothing difficult about her work. What you see is what you get. She is the popular face of art, the Judy Garland of the art world tugging at public’s heart strings with yet another tale of ‘poor me’. Like some torch singer pouring out her heart she wails: Love is what you want. Like listening to Alanis Morissette late at night over a bottle of wine after being jilted by a recent lover, she touches something universal. Yet when one wakes the next day from the alcoholic haze of emotional indulgence one might hopefully realise that there are other concerns in the world; politics, social deprivation, philosophy and other people – yet Tracey’s world contains none of these.
Tony Blair once declared another brilliant self-publicist, who caught the imagination of the public with her maudlin self-pity, Princess Diana, the People’s Princess. I would now like to offer a similar title to Tracey Emin: stand up the People’s Princess of Art.
1 Love is what you want 2011
2 Running Naked, 2000
3 Hotel International, 1993
4. I’ve got it all, 2000
Installation views of the exhibition. All works copyright Tracey Emin. All photos David Levene