Tracey Emin: 20 Years
Tracey Emin: 20 Years at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Visiting this retrospective was primarily valuable because it confirmed for me that I just don’t rate Tracey Emin. When someone’s whole shtick is an emotional outpouring, it’s a bit of a problem if the viewer doesn’t feel anything. I didn’t hate the art, I just didn’t care about most of it; instead I walked around the exhibition feeling uninvolved and rather bored.
The problem is that Emin’s work is so autobiographical that it’s like reading someone else’s diary or worse, being grabbed by the collar and forced to listen to a drunken rendition of someone else’s tedious problems.
I suspect that to be a great artist, you need to transcend the self and tap into something bigger. Emin seems – so far – to be unable to take that leap. I learnt that she loved her gran; that she has a cat; that her dad brings her flowers; that one of her abortions was traumatic; that her bed got messy and that her favourite uncle died in a car crash – but I didn’t learn anything new about myself or the human condition. In my opinion, art needs to connect with the viewer, to touch something in them, to resonate, to disturb or to enlighten: apart from one work, Emin’s art did none of this for me.
For something that purports to be going deep, her work is remarkably stuck on the surface. I was reading textile pieces that said things like, “I feel so fucking lonely” and thinking, “yeah, we all do sometimes, so what?”
There were a couple of pieces that I responded to, mostly her later work, which suggests that she may be improving. I sort of liked her rickety rollercoaster, the newer white and cream blankets and the little monoprints of birds but even these were nothing to write home about.
That said, I do appreciate the casual and forthright use of stitching on her signature appliquéd blanket pieces. I’ve always liked the way that Emin uses textiles in such a confident fashion – unlike many other female artists working with stitch (myself included!) she never seems to get hung up on the domestic and feminine history of fabric; she just cracks on and does it with a ‘sod anyone who thinks sewing isn’t real art’ attitude! I am grateful to her for that because I think she makes it easier for the rest of us.
The piece I liked best was a video work from 1995, the well-known, Why I Never Became A Dancer. The story of her early teenage sexuality and how she was punished for it strongly resonated with me. The tattered, grainy images of Margate shot on Super 8 film are very evocative and the ending, where Emin dances her heart out in defiance of those who tormented her, is genuinely filled with hope and joy. There’s something more than pure autobiography here and if Emin could access that more often, she might become the talented artist she seems to think she is. But as it stands, it’s the only really good piece in the whole retrospective.
For me the major problem is the literalness of Emin’s work; if she could take her raw emotions and her autobiographical objects and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts then it might work. As it is, I’m not sure that what she’s doing is even art: most of the time it feels more like art therapy – just an exhibitionist museum to the self. In short, I feel that on leaving an exhibition, my dominant thought should not be, “well hey, at least she has great tits!”
I’ve always thought that Emin could be good if she could just get the hell over herself. It’s interesting to compare her to someone like Louise Bourgeois, who has also extensively and obsessively mined her emotions and her past but to far greater and more lasting effect. I once saw a show of Bourgeois’ art at the Serpentine that disturbed me so much that half way through I had to go outside for some fresh air. On the evidence of this show, Emin has a long way to go before she’ll have the same effect.
If you want to see it, the exhibition is on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until November 9th.
A ROUND UP OF OTHER REVIEWS
Problematic interview with the artist where she comes across as infuriatingly arrogant. This bit made me particularly loopy!
Some people might find an unmade bed studenty and corny. But Emin is absolutely adamant that “taste cannot get mixed up with what’s good and what’s bad”. There is a definite standard. Quality control. But presumably there are great artists out there, undiscovered? “No. They’d have made it if they were any good.” I wonder how she can possibly say that. It shows enormous faith in the establishment for someone supposedly so anarchic. “Why would I be anti-establishment when the establishment is so good to me?” she demands.
This is just so monumentally stupid – being good at playing the art world game is NOT the same as being a good artist.