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Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want

August 19, 2011

A couple of months ago, I was excited to hear about an upcoming exhibition ‘Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward Gallery. As a long-term Tracey Emin fan, I eagerly anticipated the exhibition’s opening, and went to see it in the middle of June. That seems like ages ago now, so it’s about time I blogged about it.

‘Love is What You Want’ features a diverse variety of Emin’s work, reflecting the wide-ranging, eclectic, prolific nature of her practice. Indeed, she uses such a wide range of media that I’ve often thought that if she was still at art school, she’d be told to focus her practice, decide what she wants to make and stick to her learning proposal and its intended aims! But anyway, I’ve been a fan of her work for ages and I think that she gets too much criticism from the press and the general public, and even from my fellow artists. I think people get the impression that ‘My Bed’  is all she’s about and that she’s still living off the controversy/notoriety she got from that piece. ‘My Bed’ doesn’t feature in the exhibition and neither does her tent ‘Everyone I have ever slept with’ (the original of which was destroyed in a fire anyway). So I think people who judge her based on just those two pieces of work should see this show and see that her work is more far-reaching.

This exhibition shows work from throughout her career: her appliquéd blankets, neon works, films, objects and memorabilia, many of her monoprint drawings, and her recent sculptures. I was particularly excited to see one of the pieces that I wrote about in my dissertation, ‘Something’s Wrong’ (2002, appliquéd and embroidered blanket).


Seeing it in person made me realise that it’s smaller than most of her other blanket pieces, and very different in style. It has less appliqué, the embroidered woman’s body is like a drawing, less graphic-style than her other blanket pieces.

I think critics have often mislabelled her work as just being about shock value or self-display because she addresses sensitive personal issues such as sex. But it can be argued that she is consciously manipulating the viewer into experiencing emotions such as shock to raise important questions within her work. To quote my dissertation, in this piece, “The way in which the female body is displayed to the viewer and the text that accompanies the image states that something is wrong, suggests that the female figure is not consenting to being naked and on display. It suggests forced nudity and sexual violence, as Emin often connects sex in her work to violence and rape, “sex is not so much coupled with violence as equated with it.” If we read this piece to be about sexual violence towards women then the inclusion of a nude female figure in the work, with text that states that something is wrong, seems to be making a direct point about the wrongs of sexual violence, thus making a personal issue into a political point against violence, showing how second-wave feminism’s fight for women to have control over their bodies has influenced Emin’s work.” Being able to see a piece I’d written so much about was excellent, and made the exhibition worth going to for me!

Emin’s neon works were displayed in a darkened room with black walls, which I think set them off well. I much preferred seeing them in person to how one sees pictures of them in books (or as an art student, in Powerpoint presentations during lectures). The darkened room really helped to communicate the seedy connotations of the origins of neon signage, and I noticed that the room had a strange smell- maybe from the neons, maybe not? I liked the short, sharp, punchy phrases like ‘Love is what you want’ and ‘Those who suffer LOVE’.

I was also surprised to enjoy Emin’s flms more than I’d expected, particularly ‘How it feels’, her 1996 video piece reflecting on her 1990 pregnancy and botched abortion, depression, and not being able to make art. It was quite a lengthy video, and I normally tire of watching films quickly within a gallery context; after several minutes I usually get up and leave, but I felt compelled to sit and stay and watch all of this.


 Another piece I liked was ‘Sometimes I feel Beautiful’, (2000, C-print) showing Tracey in the bath. I think it’s a gorgeous image and I noticed it had a very matte finish, so perhaps it was mounted on aluminium, which is the current ‘trendy’ way to mount and display photographs. She appears lounging, eyes shut in a dreamy, quietly contemplative, perhaps even meditative state, in a very full foamy bathtub. It is quite typically Emin, making a personal moment (although likely a staged photograph) not just political, but into a universal emotion.

Also featured in the exhibition are some of her drawings, mostly made using monoprinting, a technique that many art students will remember from their Foundation year! It also shows some of her paintings, and her recent sculptures, which I’m not particularly fond of. Overall though, I love her wide range of media and it was fascinating to see many of her pieces displayed together: the drawings, memorabilia, appliqué blankets and photographs.

It is open at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London, until 29th August, so there’s just over a week left if you want to go and see it!

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