“Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me…” as Kenneth Williams once theatrically proclaimed. Tracey Emin is certainly infamous, as much for her lifestyle as her Art, and she has been vilified for both.

Love is What You Want, now showing at the Hayward Gallery, has been sited by many – including Emin – as her retort to her critics, and as her demand to be re-evaluated and acknowledged not as an enfant terrible, or “Mad Tracy From Margate” but as one of the country’s most prominent and successful artists.

Personal Paraphernalia

Love is What You Want is a big exhibition. There is a mass of Art on display, in some rooms too much. Crowded in with Emin’s Art is personal paraphernalia that she has donated to the exhibition. Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward and co-curator, has previously claimed that exhibitions should not just be about “admiring someone else’s creativity”. Certainly in this exhibition the inclusion of objects from the peripheries of Emin’s life makes the show part exhibition, part intimate autobiography. This is entirely appropriate for an Emin retrospective.

…all her sexual frustration is there in her painstaking craftwork.

Emin’s project has always been herself and this has been the root of many people’s objection to her and her work. Of course many artists make Art about themselves but her presence and personality is indelible. The most extreme example of this would be the Turner Prize nominated My Bed. But it is also strongly evident in her hand-made quilts, all her sexual frustration and frustration at female experience is there in her painstaking craftwork.

Emin’s Art is egocentric, but it isn’t selfish. She shares a lot, and sharing is an empathetic Act. Part of the exhibition experience in Love Is What You Want is transference. It is impossible to look at Art that is so intimate and not look into yourself. Doing so publicly, in a gallery full of other people also doing exactly the same, is intense and moving. The video Why I Never Became A Dancer in particular is a powerful and emotive film, which is hard to watch with others.

Dud Notes

The sense of exposure, gained through the experience of a collective audience, is not uniformly brilliant. There are some immature and mawkish installation pieces. Tacimin – Can you hear me?, for example. Her most recent work – neon and wood prop-pieces, look like an amusing generalization of “contemporary Art”, and many of her drawings are scrappy and unsubstantial.

Though really it doesn’t matter that there are dud notes, Emin’s Art is accumulative. Love Is What You Want is not a platform for her blockbusters – the most famous works no longer exist after the Saatchi warehouse fire in 2004 – it is a showcase of the oscillations in her practice.

…the strength of Emin’s electric aphorisms is that their simplicity shocks and stings.

There are some strange curatorial decisions. Works are frequently grouped by material and genre, so the appliqué blankets are all hung together and the neons share a dark room. The neon room is a particularly poor decision because when presented altogether the individual texts get lost, this is a shame because the strength of Emin’s electric aphorisms is that their simplicity shocks and stings.

Love Is What You Want is an honest account of Tracey Emin to date, as a mid-career international artist. Her work is beautiful, silly, moving, graceful, messy, bleak and funny, and tells a personal story that invites the audience in. It’s a good exhibition and its imperfections are part of its charm, but it is unlikely to change Emin’s status as an artist. Still it would have been great to see it at the Tate, undoubtedly Emin would agree.

The Exhibition continues until 29 August.

Admission: £12/£9

4 Stars 

Image courtesy of Hayard Gallery


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