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Emin’s Saucy, Egoistic Relics Seduce in London: Martin Gayford

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"Love is What You Want" (2011), a neon work by Tracey Emin, in the exhibition "Love is What You Want" at the Hayward Gallery, London until August 29. Source: Hayward Gallery via Bloomberg

May 18 (Bloomberg) -- Are we tired of Tracey Emin?

A large segment of the public hated her and her works on first acquaintance, and even those who didn’t could be excused for feeling weary after two decades of incessant publicity. If ever an artist has been overexposed in the media, it’s Emin. She’s that dubious personality, an art celeb.

Still, I was won over by the career retrospective, “Love Is What You Want,” which just opened at the Hayward Gallery in London. The fact is that, maddening as she can be, Emin is a compelling and original talent. She’s also erratic, limited and repetitious. Quite a few renowned artists are all of those. It almost goes without saying that Emin is egomaniacal.

Obviously, everything she does is all about herself. When I reviewed an exhibition of hers a few years ago, I suggested she might be a religious artist. I wasn’t altogether joking. While she doesn’t claim any actual belief, her work is full of religious references, albeit sometimes blasphemous (“Come unto me,” for example, and a cross on one of her blankets). What’s more, she’s fond of displaying memorabilia associated with the dramas of her life, including surgical procedures, in the manner of the relics of saints.

Even if you’re tired of the tale of St. Tracey -- her teenage rape, the abortions, problems with drink and so forth -- there’s a visual pizzazz about her best work that makes it durable. She complains in a catalog interview about people who can’t be bothered to read the texts in her work (anyone who did read every word in this show would be there a long time). I agree the words are integral to her embroidered and applique blankets. They have anarchic visual vigor that’s crucial too.

Nervous Line

Emin, born in 1963, uses diverse media, and the results in some are much better than in others. The drawings, though not garbage as is sometimes claimed -- she has a nervous, personal line, which is a good start -- are monotonous. There are far too many, and they are too similar. Nor has she found a way to make effective large-scale paintings, though the latest, “Black Cat” (2008) is the least weak.

On the positive side, Emin has a remarkable ability to extract a sort of poignancy from marginal, soiled and rejected things. This is apparent in her sculpture, which isn’t what she’s most widely known for, yet it’s one of the things she’s best at. Her knack is for turning everyday objects into psychic metaphor.

Forlorn Pier

“Knowing My Enemy” (2002) is a dilapidated seaside pier with at one end a homely little room. The route to this refuge - - the wooden walkway -- has partially collapsed. The safe haven is inaccessible. The whole huge piece has a forlorn, neglected air, like a rundown beach resort (such as Emin’s hometown of Margate).

Also on the plus side of the balance sheet are her textiles and her neon works. A black corridor filled with the latter -- like electric graffiti, spattered with four-letter words and startlingly intimate revelations -- seems both sleazy and glamorous. The neons are sometimes shocking and sometimes touching. The declaration “You Forgot to Kiss My Soul” in blue and pink, might make you squirm. Emin is like that. The squirm factor is part of the effect. Boldly, she ventures into areas of taste where many would hesitate to follow. Love her or hate her, she’s a true original.

“Love Is What You Want” is at the Hayward Gallery, London, through Aug. 29. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at or!/martingayford.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at

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