Issue 151
September/October 2008

The Artwork Logo
August 14, 2022

Ms. Emin - a re-assessment

LOVE OR HATE her, like or dislike her even, Tracey Emin has secured a place in late 20th /early 21st century art history. It could be argued that she was in the right place at the right time. Whatever happened to her contemporaries Sarah Lucas and Gillian Wearing two other shining stars of the YBA movement, for example? Why are they not household names like Emin? Lucas and Wearing (and others for that matter) might be equally talented but Tracey obviously possesses the X- factor that propelled her (like her male counterpart Damien Hirst) into the realm of superstardom - and who knows why?

However, by-passing the hype over Emin's 'celebrity status', traumatic early years, shock value and explicit sexual nature of the work is the best way to get something from the retrospective exhibition 20 Years showing now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Much of what is on show has been around the block. Her embroidered chair 'There's Money in Chairs' has even toured the USA since it was exhibited in Stills Gallery about ten years ago. But, in a retrospective show that is okay. The large number of drawings are interestingly executed in a particular style, which is appealing. However, the sexually charged monotonous mono prints become boring after a while. More simplified images of buildings like the 'Lido' are a deviation but even these tend to appear phallic (whether by accident or design)? Oh, and she draws birds a lot as well.

The neon writing is boring too. The only length of neon to impress forms part of a piece called 'Self Portrait'. This neon tube emerges from an old tin bath filled also with bamboo cane and barbed wire. This is one of the installations that work as a piece of art rather than an exercise in conceptualism. Mostly all the written stuff is tedious and boring unless it is the kind of thing that turns you on. Whatever power Emin's work has should not be lost in words and sometimes all the written verbals seem a kind of red herring. Unless other people's diaries are interesting to you there is no reason to read them.

Then there is the infamous 'My Bed'. Whatever presence it may have had now seems to have gone. It comes across as an empty stage set. Assuming it was originally created though to evoke a sense of personal space it is not surprising that it comes across this way since it was violated long ago by being jumped on and strewn with paint. Looking now at the iconic image the bed has become, details of the debris scattered around come to the fore and silly questions come to mind such as 'what was a 30-something doing wearing Ma Broon's slippers anyway'? The appliquéd blankets are great. Aesthetically, they have super impact. They are like hand-sewn, little-women samplers from the past with attitude which have been blown up huge and liberated. The writing on these is often amusing and easier and more enjoyable to read compared to the ramblings on paper.

Even so, all the written pieces, the bed, the blankets - everything in fact in the entire exhibition are crucial and contribute towards what Emin has actually achieved in the last twenty years. By placing herself at the centre of her work in a 'me me me' way (not difficult for an exhibitionist such as Emin) she has altered the notion of what is termed in art history as the 'male gaze'. When she paints naked she, as the animated 'life model', is in control. Her bed is not the idealised bed of Manet's 'Olympia' but a crumpled pit and resting place for a real flesh and blood woman. Emin has snatched the 'male gaze' back from every male artist who has ever depicted a woman in a certain way and blasted it straight back at them with a vengeance.

This will be Tracey Emin's lasting legacy. The sense of freedom and joy at the end of her short film 'Why I Never Became a Dancer' when she dances to Sylvester's disco hit 'You Make Me Feel Mighty Real' is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Trauma? What trauma?

CATHY BELL


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