'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tracey Emin, Love is What You Want

The problem with success is that once you've attained it it's almost impossible to avoid being typecast by it. One of the biggest misconceptions about the twenty-first century phenomenon that is Tracey Emin is that her work is all about sex. In fact as Ms Emin's first major London exhibition clearly shows, her work is about far more than her sex life. In fact, I would argue, her work concerns itself very little with her sex life. A lot of other things go on in a bed besides sex. No, her work is about intimacy. It is about love. By which I do not mean crappy Hollywood-style love with a small 'l' to which most of us these days are already horribly over-exposed, but big Love with a big 'L' that takes no account of gender, race, or even - as we discover at the Hayward via a by turns comic and somewhat disconcerting video sketch featuring a dribbling bullmastiff - species.

Tracey Emin seems to take a lot of flack in this country. What I can't quite figure out is why. Is it her success and our perverse British desire to see the mighty fall? Is it because she went on TV a bit pissed and exposed herself as someone who is occasionally - gasp - out of control? It can't seriously be because she pays people to stitch things for her? Surely not, because Reynolds paid people to paint things for him, as did Gainsborough and we don't have a problem with them. Maybe it’s the narcissism we perceive in her use of her own life as the starting point for her art. But where then would we like her to start? An artist can't really begin a meaningful examination of life with someone else's life can they? For how do we know what someone else's life is like? Maybe it's because we imagine she can't draw and that's why she embroiders tents and submits unmade beds as art? Yet it has often been said, and I tend to concur, that she's a very able draughtsperson. So, it's a mystery to me. But whatever it is, for anyone to provoke that much irritation simply by going about their business, they've got to be doing something meaningful. Frivolity, surely, just isn't that annoying. Could it be then that she's pointing to something we might not want to look at? Something in ourselves? Is it that in showing us her own vulnerability she is also showing us ours? And perhaps we're not completely sold on the idea of gawping into our own wounds?

Maybe the kind of poignant statements her work is littered with are a bit too close to the bone:

"you stop me from feeling anything" / "I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone" / "every time I feel love I think Christ I'm going to be crucified" / "I whisper to my past, do I have another choice"

For all the vapidity she's accredited with it is fairly strong stuff.

Tracey Emin: Love is what you Want spans Emin's entire career to date including a lot of work that I'd never seen before and some work made especially for this exhibition. It opened my eyes to the vast expanse of Emin's oeuvre rather than the smallish pond of what I had thought was her oeuvre. She's prolific and works very successfully in all media. Add to that she's feisty, she's controversial, she's fun and she's a little bit cross. She's strong, vulnerable, profound, sensitive, brave, insecure, witty and all in all I cannot but to take my hat off to her. I don't care if some love to hate you Trace. I don't, I love to love you.

Tracey Emin
Love is What You Want
Hayward Gallery
til 29 August
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Twin is a bi-annual art, fashion and feminist book inspiring a daily blog

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