18:01

Tracy Emin

I had never seen an exhibition of Tracy Emin’s work before. No one could miss a life lived so publicly, so the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery contains few surprises: the masturbatory drawings, the diary entries, used Tampax and the films and photographs of her curious lopsided beauty.

The question that is always posited is whether all this is Art. If you think that all graphic art has to have its basis in skilled draftsmanship then the answer has to be no. There is little evidence of a technical mastery there: the drawing  (technically monoprints – inked-up glass with the paper applied on top) is clumsy and the paintings often just daubs of paint randomly applied to the monoprints.

But I think this misses the point. There is something magnificent about so much that is normally intensely private exposed to such a magnesium light. Her handwritten account of an abortion is coruscating in the rawness of the emotion and her agony of loneliness mixed with a compulsive sexuality has the power to move. And some of her painting, notwithstanding the comments above, are striking, though you feel that behind each one on the wall there were hundreds that the random technique she uses consigned to the rubbish bin. I particularly liked her wooden structures – there is a pier and shed that smells of her native Margate.

Can this celebrity life claim to be art? I think so - if that art is a reflection and interpretation of a humanity at a certain point in time. Solipsistic self-absorption is at the heart of our celebrity culture - and no one does that better than Tracy Emin.  The question is whether the qualities of an artist are something that are eternal - or would they fail taken out of the context of their time. How would the peculiar religious genius of, say, Michelangelo have fared in a secular twentieth century in the milieu of Picasso and Braque? It is worth asking the question not because there is any meaningful answer, but only to highlight the problem. Though she’s no Cezanne, I’m a convert - and feel a real affection for a heart so raw and exposed.
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