Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Eminent Emin

Well, there's a laugh, I sit down in the cafe at the Hayward Gallery to write some thoughts on the Tracey Emin exhibition I have just seen. I type Emin and the iPad immediately changes it to eminent. Clearly I have to mind my words, she has powers I never knew of.

Lois and I came we accidentally saw a documentary about the exhibition on the TV last week and then realised that the exhibition was about to close. We are trying hard to schedule more spontaneity in our lives, so we jumped in the car and set off the very next day.

Over the years, I have come to like Tracey Emin, mostly from seeing her say things on TV programs, rather than a careful study of her art. When Eugenie Scrase won BBC Two's School of Saatchi competition it was Emin who kept her in the hunt in the earlier rounds, at least as far as we could tell from what they showed on TV. I loved the final piece that won, a tree trunk impaled on a fence that Scrase had seen while walking along a London street. Hardly art, you might say, but she did persuade the owners to let her chop out the piece of fence and find a way to exhibit the thing. I was impressed that Tracey Emin had seen something in Scrase’s earlier work that the rest of the judges seemed to miss.

The current exhibition at the Hayward is massive, partly because there are a lot of small pieces, as well as quite a few big ones. For me it was too much to take in while in a gallery that is determined to stop you sitting down to think. I know the Hayward is all dressed concrete, but a few chairs would not go amiss. There are a couple of concrete benches but they are specifically stationed to view particular pieces, so it is hardly fair to use them to simply to muse or let your lower back have a rest from standing.
Most of the people there with me were young women, so maybe they don't get backache from standing too long, but surely they must want to stop and think some of the time.
The audio guide, that can be downloaded to your smart phone relies on some kind of signal, an over enthusiastic assumption in a concrete palace. There is obviously a clever salesman at work somewhere because I had exactly the same problem with a similar system at Tate Modern. Do the people who run these places try using these devices?
 Back to the exhibition, what did I think? The most important thing is that I did think, though I have no idea whether what came into my head was what Tracey intended. In the TV show about the exhibition, she complains at one point about personal criticism in relation to her Viennale exhibition. I can understand why she objected; I looked up some of the reviews, the joys of the Internet mean that they are still available. Much of her work appears to be a personal narrative, endless variation on self-portraiture, much of it nude or semi nude. I am not sure if all the stories are true. It is almost as if she makes up stories about imaginary selves and draws and paints their experience, or maybe they are just embellishments of reality. We all do that of course, the stories that we re-tell are adjusted to suit the audience, even the most truthful people often leave out the boring bits, which makes the rest seem more intense. I suspect Tracey Emin is telling the stories of many of the women who visited the exhibition, or if not their stories, then their worst fears or hottest desires.
She is brave, and the simple truth of that strikes a chord with me. A superficial glance might suggest that she simply does not care what people think, but she is too brutally honest in her drawings for that. If she does indeed care and is prepared to expose herself, embellished or fictional, in this way then she must be brave, and she says things in her art that I suspect many women wish they could say.
The other criticism that comes up a lot is that she can't draw, or can't paint. Again it is easy to see where this comes from, many of the drawings are wild and approximate, often not things of beauty. On the other hand, they have an inner discipline of proportion that makes the subject unmistakable. I think that to be able to draw as "badly" as this you have to know how to draw well.
She is also outrageous and pushy, and that might make for some rotten reviews. Howard Hodgkin once said, "Ambition is so much more important than talent." I am in no doubt that Tracey has ambition, she may also be annoying, arrogant, self centred, and subversive, but at least she does it with verve and she has something to say.


  1. Her 'art' is still crap, though, right?

  2. I know what you mean, but the issue is whether it works. A lot of art is a joke to some, for example I think Mark Rothco is a con artist, huge badly painted deckchair canvases in murky colours, I've never got it and it just makes me laugh, but I've heard people talking about it being a window into the soul.
    I think Emin draws like crap deliberately, to get more effect. I think she wants to shock, and knows how to do it, but on reflection I am beginning to conclude that she does open up important issues.