I spent the English late summer bank holiday in Margate; a place that Tracey Emin, so the catalogue to her latest show at Turner Contemporary tells me, has described as “a most romantic, sexy, fucking weird place”. She’s not wrong. But then Tracey is really very good at describing.
As I wandered, I wondered just how much Margate describes Tracey. On the front at Cliftonville, white cliffs drop to paved seaside walkways littered with clumps of natural chalk. A free and ready supply of drawing materials that the locals clearly exploit, judging by the uniformly white-on-concrete graffiti that stares out to sea, like so much modern day cave painting repelling, informing or perhaps enticing potential invaders.
Of course you don’t use chalk only to draw. One piece of graffiti proclaimed anonymously to the world “I love you, Melissa ***scott”, whilst just a little further round the cliffs the darker, more bruised “Melissa, I never wrote the kid bit” made Emin’s neon gift to the town ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ echo with fond distance. Here you could see real lives folding and unfolding before your very eyes, daily writ large on the communal chalkboard. Add the painstaking craft and marvel of the Shell Grotto’s carefully managed-for-profit mystique and you’ve pretty much charted the local girl’s artistic career.
If this is Tracey’s external childhood environment, step inside the RIBA award-winning sympathetically-reflective yet monumental seafront gallery and you’ll come face to face with Tracey’s adult internal environment. On the way in to the exhibition rooms (sponsored by Farrow and Ball, don’tyaknow) a helpful lady tried to sell me the £2 audioguide, advising “Some of the art in there is very difficult, you see”. She was right, but I figured the audio would be hard to hear above the scream of Tracey’s scratchy blue gouache sketches of her naked female form.
In the catalogue Jeanette Winterson writes “This is not the female body as art object drawn by men for millennia; it is a woman drawing on herself as a woman.” Like womanhood, this is not for the fainthearted. Emin shows herself/us in a continual dialectic with the biology of her/our sex. She speaks to us through it. She is seen staring at her body in wonderment, but most often clutching, scratching, clawing and pawing at and into her cunt (no other word appropriate here) like a rooting animal, as if desperately seeking herself, her losses, and the answer to life and mortality. She doesn’t spare her blushes or ours. We don’t really need the bold inscription ‘RELAX’ in ‘Blue Figure: Relax’ to conjure the cold metallic pinch of the speculum.
And that brings me to Tracey’s writing. She’s working on a longer piece at the moment (‘The Vanishing Lake’), and it seemed to me that her graffiti is beginning to overtake her images, sometimes appearing like a half-descended final curtain (‘I Love You’, ‘I Didn’t Say’, ‘I Know You Are Beautiful’). For my money, the written canvases are less interesting. Her writing doubtless has an everywoman appeal -it is resonant and documents our age (‘I Said No’) – but it is not outstanding. Her drawing- rarely pretty but always curious and ultimately beautiful – is. It bears comparison with the revealing Rodin and JMW Turner sketches that are included here. Not as beautiful, certainly, but far more narratively rich.
What are beautiful are the embroideries – the developments of her textile work. Stitched large on visibly tacked together calico squares, it’s as if the memory of a thousand generations of women’s work softens the line, soothing the image into something altogether more ethereal (‘Floating Blue’, ‘Dark Recline’). And, breaking from the blue to a palette of soft earth, ‘Thankyou’ is the most evocative paean to that glorious post-orgasmic, post-coitally satisfied tranquillity I have ever seen.
The exhibition also shows her current thoughts in sculpture (mostly working on the kinaesthetic self-portrait in cast bronze), monoprinting (playing with comparing her own mark-making to Picasso’s- and yes, she can switch from Schiele to Picasso with apparent ease) and more of that neon graffiti. Excepting the latter, the work has the feel of progression. When Germaine Greer reviewed ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward for Radio 4, she calculated that Tracey was now menopausal. This, she said, is “a tough time in a woman’s life”- “the reckoning”- and counselled that Emin’s anger was coming back, now from “a deeper place- the well of female frustration.” On the evidence of ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea’ I reckon Germaine’s right.
If you’re a woman, it’s a must see. Like Winterson, I don’t know what you’ll make of it if you’re male. I guess it depends on whether you’re man enough to come to terms with what the feminine really entails. You’ve got until 23rd September….you’ve already missed your chance to stick a proper Margate Kiss-Me-Quick hat on Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. Shame.