A Review of Tracey Emin: A Fortnight of Tears at White Cube, London
WhiteCube presents a ‘Fortnight of Tears’ by Tracey Emin, which brings together sculpture, neon and film as well as photography and drawings focusing on the artist’s trauma. A radical departure from previous exhibitions, it deals with Emin’s womanhood, Sex, loss, her bereavement and renewal through a range of newly developed mediums. Having struggled with her previous work, this is aesthetically one of the most interesting shows she has presented. For the first time one glimpses at more nuanced work, which isn’t focused on installation. It is viscerally introspective and exhibitionist and – with exceptions – feels a great deal less conceptual than previous work. White Cube’s airplane hangar-like rooms display a series of selfies taken during insomnia, anthropomorphised lumps of bronze and a series of almost Twombly-esque self-portraits painted in a gynaecological pallet as well as some challenging video work.
Emin polarises. Before she managed to weave her traumas into a greater narrative – the female condition –her art felt as if it lacked any sense of universality. Undeniably, she isn’t the first artist whose work, art and person are so entwined as to essentially be inseparable; but she is certainly one of the most indulgently exclusive. Her modus is literal and one dimensional, which, given the conceptuality of it, is an unusual feat.Additionally, her work is often not particularly aesthetic, nor technically accomplished and doesn’t always open itself up to ambiguity or layered interpretation. While she was able to shock her audience during her rise to fame in the YBA days, our current age of exhibitionism and excessive conceptualisation requires radical reinvention to remain relevant. In part, this reinvention is a success here.
The exhibition takes a more meditated and sensitive path through Emin’s ubiquitous trauma. The sculptures work within this context, but I fear would be without merit if presented at any other scale, because they feel technically and geometrically unimpressive. At their worst they remind one of the calcified corpses of Pompei, while at their best they supinely emanate suggestive sexual as well as motherly warmth. They pour out tension into white space. On balance they are of some interest.but nothing to write home about. Not least, in direct contrast tot he paintings which constitute the most successful part of the show.They are visceral, evocatively figurative and mysteriously confident drawn up white canvases. Their schematic nature show ethereal ghost like silhouettes in company of firmer fleshier silhouettes.
While these evoke the out of body experience one might encounter in moments of exquisite pain or pleasure, other works are entirely of the flesh. We bear witness to a wide scope of the female bodily experience in a pallet of viscera and black. The compositions range from the medical; to the morbid; to the carnally pornographic; to the silhouette in reposed sorrow. The red splatter of blood recurs throughout as a showing of the capacity for birth, death and wound. She protests the suggestions that her last decade of painting, drawing and sculpture classes have guided her hand more steadily and describes her approach as wholly visceral and spontaneous. Her paintings are the result of a very painful iterative process and not pre-meditated.[In the context of her work this may be true – in absolute terms it is very little.]The works reveal her command of dynamic composition and her narrative power rendering them deeply moving and dramatic even without the suggestive titles.
In contrast, the selfies project themselves as dull indulgences diminishing the rest of the exhibition. At 60k a pop their sole merit likely consists in funding her new expansive Margate studio space she will hopefully use to paint more. While no artistic triumph, commercially they are not a bad idea: though less useful in illuminating the corners of bars in Belgravia than her neon signature banners. No-one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of a certain type of collector.
Tracey Emin’s ambition is valiant – to speak for those who can’t, to empower and give women a voice. She allows one to feel less alone in tragedy. You too are me! The show is cresting the #metoo and #timesup momentum and no doubt will slip under it to never be thought of again in the canon of this young century. To so emphatically focus on female trauma potentially seems reductionist of the experience, but when it works like the paintings she presents it really works. One still leaves with the looming sense that much of what she does here is to some moderate success and that someone else has probably done it infinitely better. More cleverly, more movingly, more beautifully.
There is no doubt that Tracey Emin is working through significant emotional experiences and paving the way for women to share their own. She has been doing it for years – never as successfully as How it Feels(1996) in which she recounts a traumatic abortion, which is also included in the exhibition. She is again churning through loss, grief and renewal. There is an exploitative dynamic at work here but her exhibition works best when she lets us feel her through her paintings while the other mediums explored in the exhibition felt like an interruptionA Fortnight of Tears has made it clear that Tracey Emin is (or should be) defining herself as a painter of merit and a voice of female emancipation, but I hope that she’ll soon abandon diminishing distractions such as printing out late-night selfies.
Written by Byron Houdayer, a Contributor to Arteviste