Tracey Emin is a good fit for Margate. Both used to be a bit uncouth and a little intimidating but, over the years have been fully embraced by the artistic elite from whom they have both found a purpose.
Which may explain why the artist has returned to her home town; the pair reuniting in the hope of laying the ghosts of their troubled past behind them.
Emin is, after all, as Marmite to the general public as Thanet is to the rest of Kent. Either you embrace their flaws and beauty and revel in the hint of danger which is perceived to be lurking around every corner or you just don’t get it, taking out your own broad brush and proclaiming them both over-hyped.
Despatched to Margate to investigate her latest exhibition, I’ll lay my pre-departure cards on the table. Thanet I adore, Emin I’m in two minds about.
Review an art exhibition? It was a long way out of my comfort zone or area of expertise. But as an average ‘man on the street’ I was only too happy to take a look and give my honest assessment. I warned it may end up being a light-hearted look at how pretentious everything was. But art, apparently, is all about challenging yourself and opening your mind.
In fact, only in recent years have I come to appreciate that ‘art’ can be far more just a photo-realistic painting. Margate, in truth, has offered up some thought-provoking exhibitions at the town’s Cultural Catalyst for Regeneration™, the Turner Contemporary, over the years (although, it should be said, in my humble, uneducated opinion, not its current one).
It has changed my views on art and, as a consequence, converted a complete cynic. Yes, I cannot deny I sometimes find art so bizarre it can provoke a laughing fit (a curse which has inflicted me since seeing an artist’s empty sketchbook as an exhibit on show at the Tate in St Ives many years ago – I mean, come on !), but if in the right mood I can actually enjoy these things rather than stifling yawns and being annoyed by those around me who gawp in wonder at them.
But Emin? Well the jury which lurks within my head was out on her.
When she emerged as part of a new breed of controversial British artists in the 1990s she garnered plenty of headlines for My Bed – a Turner Prize-nominated installation which was, as the title suggested, her grubby bed after she spent a troubled four days confined to it, not eating but only drinking alcohol. It was strewn with the detritus that came with a woman in her (then) 30s; fag ends, condoms, booze.
It was a bold statement and one which left as many people scratching their heads as it did those who proclaimed it a work of genius. I was, if truth be told, a fully paid up member of the former.
Yet, whatever your view on it, it achieved the goal which all art should aspire – it made an impression and got you thinking. That is, after all, the point isn’t it? It wasn’t supposed to be comparable to a spectacular oil on canvas, it was something which captured a moment and conveyed a mood. I used to hate it, now I have a grudging respect for it. Oh, and when it went up for auction in 2014 it fetched £2.5million. Crazy stuff.
Ditto its predecessor, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. It was a tent with the names of more than 100 people Emin had slept with – be it sexually or innocently as a child. It was, however, destroyed in a blaze in 2004 to the sound of tears or cheers, depending on your perception of such creations.
One of the names on that very tent was Carl Freedman – with whom she had a relationship with in the 1990s.
Fitting then, that her latest exhibition is staged in the Carl Freedman Gallery – a remarkable oasis, first opened in 2019, nestled within a block of industrial units in the town centre. It’s an impressive, yet understated building on the outside – and a beautiful, polished concrete-floored space within. Emin’s studios neighbor it.
So, I hear you ask, was it any good?
Now, before you visit, a word of warning.
If you go in purely on the power of Emin’s name and expect to be knee-deep in beds and tents, you will be wrong-footed. In addition, if you enter without reading a little of the background to what you are looking at, the chances are you will scoff and tut and be out within five minutes. This, I have learned in recent years, is key to actually appreciating this stuff. Obvious really.
After all, My Bed wasn’t artistic just because it was a messy bed (otherwise we could all call ourselves artists) – it stood in the context of the artist’s despair and suicidal thoughts at the time.
And this exhibition, with the chirpy title Journey To Death, needs, very much to be considered, once again, by Emin’s state-of-mind.
This is, let’s make it very clear, not one where laughing fits are the order of the day.
Diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2020, Emin under went significant, and invasive surgery which has taken a significant physical and mental toll on her. This exhibition is her first since she embarked on a road to recovery upon which she is still on.
“My body,” the 58-year-old said in a recent interview with the Guardian, “is weird now. I haven’t got scars, I’ve just got holes.”
It’s a rather bleak statement and the exhibition, at times, is certainly just that. But without knowing that background, it would be easy to dismiss what lurks within.
Many are huge, sprawling nudes – self-portraits of a woman coming to terms with the loss of so much of her body, her inate femininity, in a bid to prevent the cancer from spreading.
There is a distinct lack of color in any of the hung works – they are mono images of turmoil and occasional acceptance of her new form. Given what it is conveying, it works perfectly.
Lunar light looms large in My Halo Was the Moon and, presumably plays a part in the lighting of others, perhaps drawing on the long held beliefs that femininity is linked to the celestial body. (Get me, sounding like I know what I’m talking about…).
The only color comes from two bronze busts, which look like extravagant plasticine creations, which sit in the center of the space – the only two works pre-dating her illness on display – and they look a little out of place as a consequence.
The ‘highlight’? Like the Moon You Rolled Across My Back is both powerful and rather disturbing – her naked figure crawling in clear distress. It’s not a pretty sight, but then it’s not supposed to be. It captures her mind set and is revealing as a consequence.
The opening gallery room offers both a rather more gentle introduction and eases you out too. The images – which capture Emin is various face portraits – are, however, an hors d’oeuvres to the bigger pieces.
Should you go? Given my grasp of art is not influenced by any critique by experts (I don’t read them, nor profess any great interest in) then the exhibition was surprising. It was overtly personal, painfully so at times, and not one that can be separated from the woman who created it.
And, hours later, the images and feeling it conveyed has stayed with me. Mission achieved surely?
I thought it was excellent – just don’t expect it to be a jolly journey.
Tracey Emin: Journey To Death at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate runs until June 19. The gallery is open from noon to 6pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Entrance is free