Tracey, you made my day – no, you made my week. I’ve been meaning to see this exhibition ever since it opened, but with one thing and another haven’t got around to it. The price of admission when you’re neither a concession nor a student is high enough to put me off on days I could take or leave it. But yesterday I bit the bullet and spent £12 on a ticket to see Love Is What You Want. It was worth every penny, including the £3.50 I spent on postcards (I can never resist the postcards).
Emin’s quilts and blankets are probably the first thing that I think of when I think of her – the appalling spelling, the textures and patterns and overlays; the blinding frankness. ‘planet thanet’ made me chuckle. ‘I want an international lover who loves me more than the world’ hung on the uppermost level – shouts over the heads of all the others, and tugs you forwards into the exhibition; full of passion and longing and sweet simple naive ambition.
I didn’t spend much time over the neons. ‘people like you need to fuck people like me’ ‘love is what you want’ – they serve a purpose, and the arcade/sex shop vibe is apparent, but they don’t do much for me. The films in the next few rooms, however, are a revelation. I sat through Why I never became a dancer twice because I just couldn’t get enough of the triumphant joy on her face at the end – that’s what surviving and succeeding looks like, right there. Riding for a fall has a similar moment in it – a little smile right at the end.
I could go on at length about each step of the way round the exhibition – the intimate family mementos, the comic value in so much of her work, the horrific account of a botched abortion, trauma, tales of being knocked down and growing tall again, the wonderful self-portrait in the Vivienne Westwood dress of money pouring from between her legs… but all this is self-evident, and expected, in a way. I would have been disappointed not to see used tampons and scrawled mis-spelled deeply personal letters – it’s part and parcel of what makes Emin the artist she is; getting all up in the masculine establishment’s face with her crochet knits and her crotch.
I’d like to talk instead about the top floor of the exhibition. This floor is less visually confrontational than the lower floor’s work. There is limited use of film, still less neon, and no sound. There is also less colour here – much of this work is monochromatic – white on shades of white or grey or blue. There is one self-portrait on this floor entitled ‘Sometimes I feel beautiful’, which is just that – beautiful. There is also some of the exhibition’s most graphic gynaecological work, which I find to be the most powerful element of her work so far – perhaps excluding the autobiographical films. There is a lot of embroidery on old bedsheets, and one which sticks in my mind depicts a woman’s crotch and bears the legend ‘Harder and better than all those bastards’, which just made me smile.
I’m not sure that I prefer these to the more colourful, more complex, more scrappy and exuberant works downstairs; but there is a coming of age feeling about them – a maturity. This isn’t necessarily a good thing – perhaps the earlier work is better art – but I found these paler, more pared-down sketches and bedsheets and vulvas very compelling; they seem to get to the bare bones of what Emin has been saying all these years.
Often simplistic, yes. Emotive, yes. Crude, certainly. Like her or loather her, Tracey Emin is important. If you’re the slightest bit curious, you should go and see this show before it closes.