Tracey Emin – Many Mountains to Climb

I’m looking at Tracey Emin’s Love Is What You Want against the usual backdrop of middle England monstering: she’s a Tory, she uses tampons, she can’t draw, she swears and then there are the yobs who, “want to smack her effing weird mouth”, blah.

However, nice to see inquisitive foreigners on the South Bank on a wet Saturday lapping it up. A wide-eyed Aussie boy in a woolly hat standing in front of the tampons, “Gee, has she got some kind of psychological disorder!” Being a surfer, he wasn’t shocked by tampons. After all, every wave has one.

In Love Is What You Want there’s more to talk about than the few things many people who have never seen her work want to talk about. Her video Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money 2001 seemed like a homage to spaghetti westerns. Strong images such as the dead goat (a la Bunuel) seemed in the wrong place and I ended up overlooking them. Silly me. But with a powerful Morricone soundtrack audible throughout the South Bank, Tracey needed to pack a six-shooter, ride a donkey and wear a wide-brimmed Stetson similar to her excellent 1998 outing Riding for a Fall. Anyway, looking at the stills in the catalogue now, I realise it had great location, vivid colourisation and a pretty dress. So that’s  okay.

There are many brilliant abstracts on a large scale, A Rose and Love Love Love. Not afraid to demonstrate that she spent seven years studying life drawing at the RA, there’s a growing sense of high quality contrasting with the contrived shoddiness of wondrous little biro sketches and abstract watercolours on yellowing lined paper suspended with ageing sellotape (After my abortion).

There are beautiful tiny abstracts in oil: Rose Virgin, Yellow Dress, Cat Whatching (sic).

An installation, Sleeping with you, fits into a corner with a neon jagged line over wooden spirals like a glowing snow covered mountain range. It’s hard to look at. It’s even harder to compete with.

Her large scale drawings aren’t drawings at all. They’re highly technical pieces inked onto glass and then drawn through from the back. Sounds impossible. Takes time. But then she’s a brilliant life drawer, and you can see it in the double lines and Renaissance curves. Egon Schiele, Klimt, it’s all there in the mix.

Then there’s the exquisite tiny furniture made of found pieces of wood, slender stools with croqueted baby boots on top. Once again, beautiful, high quality.

I’ve always seen her work alongside the work of others: Sensation, the Saatchi gallery, a mini exhibition in Oxford MOMA, the one with the Clangers, and her watercolours at the recent Watercolourists exhibition matching Turner’s abstracts. She’s just very good. Overwhelmingly good. Difficult, challenging, hard work, but that’s how it ought to be with a living artist. You want to be amazed by the risks, dangers, possibilities and the humanity. Well I do anyway.

Instead of letting people tell her tale for her, she tells it like it is. How It Feels is like Woman’s Hour but with success and money and great art at the end of the dismal tale instead of condemnation, “and was that when you first discovered you were a lowly hopeless alcoholic with shit for brains, Tracey?”

If Emin was brainless, which she’s clearly not, she’d put up a large mirror and say take a look at yourselves. A disco glitterball would be a suitable image perhaps. Thus, I can’t find a single reflecting object in Love Is What You Want. So I can’t say she’s reflecting society because she isn’t, she’s reflecting the minds of specific people she knows very well. Or as Tracey says, “The ultimate fear is to know – And I know.” Only Emin and the curators of her exhibitions know what lies behind the closed door of Knowing my Enemy. She knows very well, and there’s a note of caution about that “ultimate fear”. With Death Mask 2002, there’s a sense that there are still many mountains for the artist to climb.