Monday, 23 May 2011

Tracey Emin Retrospective #2 - The Show

The first thing you see when you come into Tracey Emin's retrospective at the Hayward is Knowing My Enemy (2002), a collapsed pier and shed which, high up, dominates the space almost as if hidden in plain view, like the proverbial elephant. It's representative of much of the show in two ways. Firstly, in being part appropriated fixture of Emin's past, part construction (complete with affecting patchwork curtains). Secondly, in the pursuit of solitude - not solitude as escape but space in which to ruminate, strip away violence, duplicity and pain and discover or generate some sort of happiness. She says of the piece
I've often tried to make a place where... I would be happy.
This is the purpose of Tracey Emin's work, which is fairly indistinguishable from the purpose of Tracey Emin.

The process of seeking out this happiness is as much a part of the construction of the space. The gallery is full of experience objectified - some might say commodified - almost made into blocks. It's very interesting that in this retrospective of her work, the work on show is a retrospective of her life even further back. One can immediately see the logic of her having opened a shop (the commodity bit) in 1993, only for that to be followed by her opening a museum (the retrospective bit) in 1995. The very walls of the exhibition become like the inside of the artist's head, with poetic signposts to the way in which she thinks and artefacts of her experience.

In fact, the entire gallery is rather like an inflated version of the famous piece Everybody I've Ever Slept With 1963-1995, also known simply as 'The Tent'. That work (not here, having been destroyed in a fire in 2004) demanded prostration and voyeurism on behalf of the viewer, i.e. getting down on one's knees and virtually crawling inside to interact with the text sewn into the lining of the tent. Those willing to take the step of subjugating themselves and indulging in the ostensible voyeurism of engaging with the work would be rewarded in finding not simply a salacious list of sexual conquests, but a roster of all those with whom she'd shared a bed, including platonic or simply pragmatic bedfellows. The art is in the transaction, buying the commodity of her intimacy.

Naturally then there are a number of pieces that reflect moments of intimacy. The Blankets (1993 - ), the armchair from her grandmother There's a lot of money in chairs (1994) and an embroidered chest full of underwear All the loving (1997) are the most homely, although this also spills over into pieces that reflect the intimate trauma of the early 1990s abortions - used tampons, collections of children's clothing, the simple symbolism of a chest of drawers called Little Coffins (2002). Both positive memories and sadness then, albeit both with their own seasoned twist in the other direction: the outwardly attractive blankets are embroidered with tales of relationship angst; the tragic fact of children's clothing doesn't negate the tenderness which it evokes.

Beside this though are the videos and monoprints, as well as the neon sign-aphorisms. These are a record of a tougher, adolescent past. Again they equivocate - Emin took the decision to both quit school and indulge in sex at a young age herself but she doesn't excuse those who made the experience rougher than it might have been. This part of the exhibition is more entertaining but touches less deeply than her domestic installations.

So far so retro. This ground floor galleries take the viewer up to about 2002, by which time Emin's profile had already peaked (following the RA Sensation exhibition of 1997 and the 1999 Turner Prize furore of My Bed - the most talked about piece in the competition, though she didn't win).

The upper floor has more recent work. Stripped of the artlessness of a life consigned to a vitrine, this is a most interesting part of the exhibition. The paintings and drawings are revealed as consistent pieces, the work of a capable if not supremely talented draughtsman. I visited an exhibition of drawings (1910-1917) by Egon Schiele shortly before viewing Love Is What You Want, an artist whose draughtsmanship is admired by Emin. Whilst the direct comparison is slightly ridiculous - Schiele, on the basis of that modest exhibition is a virtuoso and probably a genius - the vision of the line and its clawing at some sort of truth is consistent between the two artists. Most interesting is a DVD projection of a dozen or so drawings, Those who suffer love (2009) which animates drawings of a prostrate woman in the throes of ecstasy. The paintings are less successful - the Poe-inspired Black cat (2008) as tepid a monument as Hirst's Bacon/skull pictures for last year's Wallace Collection.

There is more embroidery as well. Unlike the fuzzy boldness of the quilts, these are more etiolated pieces, done in various shades of white on sheets. Sharing the larger room of the gallery are pieces of monumental sculpture - a Cornelia Parkerish exploded woodpile, neons and, outside, a triptych pertaining to the nuclear family. All of this is unremarkable, pieces without the backbone of necessity which has driven the lower floor.

Which is why I was caught out by the very final space, the second outside sculpture terrace. On first glance it looks empty. A bit of searching reveals three small pieces, cast in bronze which might easily be mistaken for an infant's paraphernalia forgotten or mislaid. This piece, Baby Things (2008), still has the power of pathos that's the DNA of Emin's best work.

This exhibition is a conundrum. It represents something of the unfathomable contradiction of modern art, which goes in search of answers ingenuously, fearlessly but with an almost anti-aesthetic sensibility. This has been an accusation levelled at Emin, as at other yBas, since the movement stomped to prominence in the 1990s. As a cultural exhibit of the confessional complex, the need for self-expression(ism) as an existential device as well as catharsis it is a priceless monument to what the Noughties produced on a populist scale in its wake. I would rather spend my time in front of Schiele's masterpieces from the height of the Vienna Secession avant garde than the invariably hapless surface of Emin's work, but it can't be dismissed out of hand.

What was I expecting?

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