Mighty Real

It’s not what you inherit. It’s what you do with your inheritance.

So says Tracey Emin in There’s a Lot of Money in Chairs, a 1994 piece which tells the story of her life through patches and lettering appliqued onto a chair the artist was given by her grandmother.  The sense of authorship, agency and possibility captured by these words runs through Love Is What You Want, the major Emin exhibition currently at the Hayward Gallery in London.

Before visiting the exhibition this weekend, I knew very little about Emin: I was familiar with her Turner-Prize-listed 1998 piece My Bed,  the go-to example for those who argue that “modern art is rubbish”, and her equally derided tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. Aware that she has, like many female artists, been much criticised for self-obsession (a quality that I’m sure we can all agree is never present in works by men), I went in with an open mind. On display were works from every period of Emin’s career, showcasing the range of media in which she has worked: richly detailed blankets, large-scale installations, collections of “memorabilia”, film, neon signs, drawings and paintings.

Many of the individual pieces on show left me unmoved, but the accumulative effect of the works in  Love Is What You Want was moving, thought-provoking and exciting. Throughout, Emin draws on her personal history, and the exhibition reverberates with her storytelling. Narratives, rather than images, have stayed with me. The stories that she tells are powerful not because they are unique. Abuse, abortion, denigration, sex, masturbation, love: every day, women experience these things. Emin’s work, though, seems to shine a torch into forgotten corners, exposing taboos by breaking them.

Is Emin self-obsessed? Perhaps. I wonder if that’s not part of the job description of a professional artist. The nature of the artist’s relationship with herself was certainly a recurring theme in the work, but this didn’t alienate me. In fact, it was the allusions to the potential for healing and redemption inherent in one’s relationship with oneself that most touched me.

Several of her works touch on the abuse she experienced as a child and teenager. A patch on one of the colourful, intricate blankets reads “there was sex without consent. By that I mean I was never asked. It just means my little legs were open. Pushed apart. Or just open and limp.” I’ve seen Emin criticised for “playing the victim”, but what I saw in her work was a determined refusal of that role. In the film Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer, Emin narrates, over a montage of images of her home town of Margate, an incident from when she was fifteen. Competing in a local dance competition in 1978, her mid-performance reveries of escaping to London to become a dancer are interrupted by a chant from the crowd: boys and men she had slept with, calling her a “slag, slag, slag.” In response to this archetypal moment of misogynist hypocrisy, Emin speaks directly to those who were out to shame her: “Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard: this one’s for you”. The video then cuts to extended footage of the artist, dancing around an empty room to the 1978 disco anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” She appears totally at ease, unselfconscious, having fun; she looks like somebody you’d want to dance with. This felt to me like the best imaginable response to the memory invoked in the film: on one level, it is a “fuck you; look at me now” to the men who abused her, but, at a deeper level, Emin’s joyful dancing seems not to be about, or for, anyone other than herself.

Emin won’t be boxed in to a victim role, but neither will she deny what happened to her, hush it up or tidy it away. It’s part of her inheritence. I wonder if it is Emin’s candid retelling of experiences of victimisation that make so many people uncomfortable, or if it is the ways in which those narratives rub shoulders in her work with other tales, of assertive sexual agency, of female power hard-won and fiercely guarded. There was “sex without consent”, and there was sex as “an adventure, a learning”. Emin is clear and unequivocal: “I was the innocent”. This declaration (from Why I Didn’t Become a Dancer) refers not only to her experiences of sexual assault, but to her “adventures” in sex: she was an innocent when adult men “pushed apart” her legs, she was an innocent when she learned about the sexual pleasure available via her body; she was an innocent “the first time someone asked [her] to grab their balls” and she discovered “the power” their desire gave her. This is a view of adolescent female sexuality that many will find unpalatable. Emin’s work disrupts Madonna vs. Whore, rejects Victim vs. Slag and, in so doing, highlights how pervasive those tired tropes still are.

A patch on a blanket relating to her teens reads “I loved to touch myself – unashamed. Dreaming – Dreaming – Dreaming”. This sense of self-pleasure – joyful, unapologetic, romantic – is equally present in Emin’s small-scale masturbation paintings. Self-portraits, both the form and content invoke self-reflection, self-reliance and autonomy. Emin describes these works as both “pretty and hard-core,” and they struck me as more sexual and less apologetic than equivalent pieces by Emin’s cited-influence Egon Schiele. Revealing at once strength and vulnerability, I found these pieces courageous.

In a room entitled Trauma, drawings depicting a nightmarish imagining of abortion hang alongside a glass case displaying the beginnings of an intricate piece of crochet, still on the needle and attached to a ball of yarn. The title offers a context for the object: The First Time I Was Pregnant I Started to Crochet the Baby a Shawl. In the accompanying text Emin explains that “this strange thing […] represents the futile, fucked energy of misguided guilt.” Again, there is complexity here. The piece conveys love, tenderness, and loss, but even while acknowledging these emotions associated with a terminated pregnancy, Emin rejects absolutely the shame so often connected to abortion. The “misguided guilt” that she decries almost leaps of the page, a potent poison threatening one’s relationship with oneself. Elsewhere, she writes: “To have the power to forgive is the greatest power of all – and because of this, I forgive myself.”

I forgive myself. These three words echoed around the exhibition: a retaliation to the names – “bitch”, “dirty girl”, “psycho slut” – carefully stitched onto blankets; a pardon for the unfinished shawl; an invitation to the disco dancer. Love is What You Want is brimful of stories. The story that stays with me is one of survival through self-exploration, self-compassion and self-forgiveness.


Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery until August 29th. I would love to know what you thought!



3 Comments on “Mighty Real”

  1. Hi Katherine, nice to meet you! This is a really great post – you’ve gone into the great kinda detail I would have tried to had I had more time.

    I think we definitely see eye to eye on this – Emin is brave, courageous, hopeful for redemption. You’re so right about the dancing video – that just blew me away. I heard that song on the radio the other day and couldn’t help but dance 🙂

    I’m glad someone else enjoyed it too, as, like you, I found many ‘anti’ and not too many ‘for’. Yet she’s incredibly famous and the gallery has been very well attended. Weird. I guess she’s a complicated figure to admit to liking…

    Anyway, thanks for commenting on TimC and good luck with the blog!

  2. Hi Lyndsay!
    Good to meet you too 🙂 I’m really glad you liked the post. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) now, thanks to Tracey (do you think it’s okay to call her Tracey?)
    I picked up her book, Strangeland, in the Hayward gift shop and I’d heartily recommend it if you haven’t checked it out.
    All the best.

  3. Hey Kitty, this is beautifully written and you echoed some of the feelings I had about that exhibition. For me, the most touching exhibit was the video of her talking with her mother – about her mother’s insistence that Tracey should not have a child because that would ruin her career. It spoke to me a lot about the relationship between mothers and daughters.

    Lotsa love

    Laura xx

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