Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want

I had mixed feelings about going to see Tracey Emin’s new solo show, Love is What You Want, at the Hayward Gallery last week. It’s difficult not to feel slightly bored by Emin, who along with her fellow YBAs, often just seems overexposed. Endlessly characterised as making work that is cynical and crass, more concerned with the pursuit of notoriety than artistic integrity, Emin is overdone. Every detail of her life – from the traumatic events of her childhood to her political views – is well-known and well-documented. What is there left to discover about Tracey Emin?

Yet in spite of these misgivings, I also found myself unexpectedly interested in this new opportunity to engage with Emin's work, as opposed to her media persona - especially given that I hadn't previously seen much of her work in a gallery setting. Love is What You Want provides the ideal opportunity for a re-appraisal, being a comprehensive and beautifully-curated survey of Emin’s entire career to date, bringing together work in a wide range of different media.

It was this incredible variety of work that initially struck me about this exhibition. Emin is well-known for making certain kinds of work, perhaps most famously her distinctive quilts and other embroidered pieces such as the 'tent' Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. However, there’s a much broader range of work to explore here, from film and video pieces to sculpture to photography to painting to printmaking.

I was also struck by the recurring use of text throughout so many of Emin’s work: this is an exhibition rife with language and storytelling, from the bold, mis-spelled appliquéd slogans of her blankets, to her glitzy neon lettering, to her handwritten texts. It’s interesting that Emin isn’t often thought of as an artist who works with language, given that this exhibition proves her to be a powerful storyteller: as she herself points out ‘it’s my words that actually make my art quite unique’.

Throughout the exhibition, it is clear that Emin’s own life is always the starting point for her art, which is confessional as often as it is confrontational. Although some of the subject matter of these highly personal, hard-hitting works remains for me difficult – pouring over ephemera related to traumatic events such as her botched abortion can’t help but leave the viewer with an uncomfortable (and no doubt, deliberately so) sense of grubby voyeurism – there’s no doubt that these are thought-provoking pieces. However solipsistic and manipulative her work sometimes seems, there is a playful sense of humour at work here too. It’s difficult not to admire Emin’s strikingly irreverent and often self-parodic approach to making art, which certainly sets little store by the conventions of the fine art world.

Ultimately though, it was the jaunty, hand-crafted, down-at-heel yet exuberantly girly aesthetic of Emin’s work which engaged me above and beyond its subject matter. There’s something particularly appealing about the rainbow colours of her blankets and upholstered chairs, the delicate embroidery, the fuzzy quality of the films, the scribbly but elegant handwriting, the cluttered ephemera, and the graceful line drawings.  From the ramshackle wooden structures of Knowing My Enemy to her spangly neon lights, the influence of Emin’s upbringing in Margate is clear – this whole show has something of the sleazy faded theatrical glamour of a seaside town.

Although I left this exhibition still with mixed feelings, I also found myself engaged, surprised and unexpectedly intrigued: for me at least, it seems that there is something new to discover in Tracey Emin's work after all.

Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery until 29 August 2011. For more information visit:


13 June 2011 at 10:11 Ali said...

Very interesting. I feel ambivilent about Emin myself; I saw the infamous "bed" at the YBA exhibition (was it 10 years ago? wow!) and rolled my eyes, but I have seen some of her drawings and they are beautiful: tender, as you say, graceful but also poignant in their depiction of bodily frailty.