Monday, 16 May 2011

Tracey Emin Retrospective #1 - Expectations

Ahead of Tracey Emin's retrospective at the Hayward opening on Wednesday, I'm reading a Thames & Hudson collection of essays on the artist, The Art Of Tracey Emin. It's fairly old - published 2002 - so it has some solid summary and analysis of what this arch yBa was all about in her heyday but no information of her work over the decade since. I myself haven't really heard much about Emin's work on a day to day basis during this period. Principally there have been a number of a works with text. Yet one automatically refers back to autobiographical works, usually involving her chequered sexual history which seem to belong to the previous century.

In the book I'm working through, Mandy Merck poses the question 'Could her installation [My Bed, 1998] be said in some way to characterize the decade?' That's a highly complex question with a long answer, although it has two themes to it that are worth considering. The first is the matter of personal openness or exposure, intimacy and privacy. The second is the nature of the sexual relationship of (young, as in yBa) women to world and to themselves.

Emin's controversial installation is not just an unmade bed but a bed littered and stained with the detritus of bodily functions and sexual congress. It's a single-installation narrative of a woman in the 1990s at once indecorous and self-empowering. The two themes are unavoidable. In an act of pre-emptive exposure, it invites voyeurism. In inviting voyeurism it inverts (if not negates) the power balance of voyeurism.

What's worth bearing in mind is that though this manipulation of private/public and (sexual) control is inverted and toyed with by the artist it doesn't vanish. The act equivocates but doesn't nullify. The textile works of the same period do the same. The quilts, items that suggest home comforts, embroidered with tales of sexual submission, or the famous tent Everybody I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 an inviting, snug tent with the eponymous names stitched into the interior are records of the past, not their committal. More than this they are, as artworks, recreations of them.

This confrontation and play with these themes put me in mind of another contemporaneous artist with whom little parallel seems to have been drawn to Emin's work. PJ Harvey came to prominence at the beginning of the 1990s with her pared-down, expressionist rock which deals with her own perspective on her (hetero-)sexuality and the manner of its consumption not only by men but also the public, specifically in the album art work and media photoshoots which accompanied the music's release.

Again the results do not invalidate the experience but highlight its complexities. Take for example the seamless mania of Rid Of Me (1992):
I'll make you lick my injuries/I'm gonna twist your head off, see
Till you say don't you wish you never never met her?...
I beg you my darling/Don't leave me, I'm hurting
Lick my legs and I'm on fire/Lick my legs and I'm desire
The psychological and physical bondage of the relationship is prefaced by a desire for genuine retribution, but the music, though seamless, doesn't side with either emotion: belligerent with the former and plaintive, even abject in the latter. Meet Ze Monsta (1995) is an even more straightforward (and so, confusing) song in which she recreates the experience of being sexually overwhelmed. In this bare, almost violent song, Polly seems to be the aggressor, despite being penetrated (or 'conquered', to use an immediately redundant epithet) during the song. Even at a playful level she retains control, blowing a whistle, like a referee, the final arbiter, at the beginning and end of the song/bout. This line of explicit sexual narrative, from the past recreated in the present of song comes to an end with Kamikaze (2001), the burning exhaust-tail of the expressionist comet of such songs up to that point.

Both artists, Emin and PJ Harvey are telling stories. The narratives are from their past but the experience is made rather real in the present: not only is the artwork or the song a record of the event, but the intrinsic, expressionist nature of the work gives a remarkably visceral experience of the event itself, albeit from the controlled perspective of the artist. The post-feminism and capitalist promotion of the 1980s gave women the impetus to meet the gender-cultural pendulum swing on its way back to men. The re-commodification of the female sex wasn't something to be stopped by women but to be addressed and manipulated, notably by these two parochial artists.

In 2011 there is a very different cultural landscape. Emin's sexual self-exposure has been taken up, reproduced and diluted in a decade of reality television and web-based self-promotion. Her own material - her vulnerable self - has been exhausted. What can we expect from the exhibition that looks back over this period?

It might be as well to look at PJ Harvey's trajectory. Following the Mercury Award-winning (i.e. institutionally-absorbed) but auto-disappointing Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, she reverted to previous models (Uh Huh Her, 2004) before diving off into albums of more ruminative-narrative songs both internal (White Chalk, 2007) and external (Let England Shake, 2011). With the winning of the Turner Prize in 1998, Emin was also absorbed into a seam of the mainstream. We can imagine that the early years of the Noughties might have seen her revert to the ideas prior to 1998, and in some measure we got that, with an autobiography, Strangeland, published in 2005 - more auto-expressionism but in a more conventional format. The neon aphorisms (rather than slogans) suggest a relocation of narrative away from the conflict of her past and of a more ruminative perspective.

What concerns me is that both women have seen the potential of their creations diminish with the exhaustion of the basic content which it has been wrought to express. Tracey Emin's craft is so indistinct from its content that its difficult to see how she will have moved on. Which, of course, makes the prospect of this exhibition all the more fascinating.

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