diamond geezer

 Friday, June 17, 2011

Tracey Emin - Love Is What You Want
Hayward Gallery: 18 May - 29 August

Well yes, as a first room, that's exactly what I was expecting. Apart from the shed. The shed is unusual. A shed on stilts at the end of a pier. Which end is the sea and which end is the beach? I like the shed.

And up on the wall, that's exactly what I was expecting, Tracey's blankets are well famous. So dense with text and meaning. And so rude. Blimey, it's not every you day you see that word in bright bold capitals in an art gallery, or that one, and especially that one. But she really can't spell, can she? To go to all that effort to create an appliqué tapestry, and then to enshrine umpteen spelling mistakes in fabric permanence. Look she's even got some of the N's in IиDEPENDEиT round one way and some the other. Don't let dyslexia put you off. This is deep, heartfelt stuff, exposing a turbulent life.

Ah, here's the neon. She loves her neon, our Trace. Sweet slogans, short truths, sweary shouting - any lettering looks better in neon. A whole wallful in primary colours - pinks, blues, greens... but with red reserved for the most forceful words. Naff off and die you slag. Except she doesn't say naff, does she? Never one to shy away from blunt. But the craftsmanship is impressively intricate, isn't it? I wonder if she bends the tubes herself. I doubt it - there are no spelling mistakes here (the glassblowers must also be proofreaders). But so pithy. I'd buy that one on a postcard, hell even on a t-shirt. I bet they haven't printed that one on a postcard.

She does film too? Awww, under the stairs is a cute short film with a talking dog. Oh, blimey, absolutely not cute, that's quite a twist. Uncomfortable, even. Shot at Chiswick House, I recognise the bridge.

Family's important here. I feel like I know Dad now, or at least the love a daughter had. I bet the family never imagined, way back when they filmed that old cine camera stuff on the beach, that this home movie would end up on endless loop in a South Bank gallery. Me, I love the way she kickstarted her career with an East End shop selling scribbled arty crap. And the Tracey Emin Museum, that's inspired, way before there was anything major to preserve but memories. But there's no tent here. And there's no bed. Burnt, charred, lost. This retrospective has infamous holes.

Being Tracey's been hard. No trauma greater than her abortion, explored and reflected in deepest seriousness. That documentary in the backroom, 22 minutes of talking to camera about the experience and the loss, that's really affecting. Great squirrel action too. In this corner the art's more physical, more pained, more revelatory. You don't see this overtly feminine angle in galleries much, because too many celebrated artists are men.

Upstairs, flailing legs. They're cartoon legs, sprawled open, leaving you the viewer to fill in the gaps. Some are dashed-off scribbles, others painstakingly sewn to create a more refined impact. All unashamedly sexual. All brazenly intimate. All verging on pornography, except somehow they're not. In Emin's hands, three inky lines can suggest far more than a sticky centrefold. Look, she stole that bedsheet canvas from a hotel. Shameless, perverse, always has been. Don't bring your parents, not unless they're liberal as you, and definitely don't bring your kids.

As for her more modern work, something's changed. It's more symbolic, more abstract, more bespoke furniture catalogue. Like she's now learnt how to represent rather than display, how to add meaning without being explicit. Those plinths and tiny chairs on the outside balcony, she's symbolising her family now rather than reproducing it. Maybe that's greater maturity, maybe it's a phase, or maybe she'll go back to writing slag in burning neon next week.

That was more varied than I was expecting. And more complex. And far more revelatory. A first retrospective well deserved, so long as you can cope with grief, fury and genitalia thrust in your face. Exit via the gift shop. Alas no, they haven't printed that one on a postcard.

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