Tracey Emin is an artist who is easy to hate and hard to love. On the occasion of her retrospective in London, we get two very different critical takes. In Emin’s corner is the FT’s Jackie Wullschlager:
As a trajectory from youth to menopause via memory, this is hardly Mrs Dalloway, yet the show is a unique and peculiar sort of triumph. In the absence of the tent, destroyed in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, and “My Bed”, which Charles Saatchi has refused to loan (it will star in his own show next year), not a single piece here is important, formally innovative, or even memorable by itself. Instead, Emin’s effect is diffuse, non-concentrated: a narrative piled up from a host of minor-key, wiry drawings, always of herself, mostly of her legs splayed open, alongside personal relics – from tampons to a spool of thread entitled “The First Time I Was Pregnant I Started to Crochet the Baby a Shawl”. In their very smallness and insignificance – that feeble, spidery line, those minuscule headless bodies disappearing on the page – as well as the ingratiating tone, Emin matches form and content: look at the result, all these images and words screech when put together, of abuse and neglect.
If much is mind-numbingly familiar, that is in part because trauma is wearyingly narcissistic but also because Emin is a victim of her own success. No one in visual art has more powerfully given a voice – high-pitched, in-your-face, authentic – to disaffected female working-class experience, especially in youth: the subject simply did not feature on the high cultural agenda until Emin put it there two decades ago. Now a Royal Academician, she remains a force for tolerance and social change. At the Venice Biennale in 2007, I was among the minority of critics who admired the bravery and honesty of her paintings referencing her abortions: private, domestic-scale works that stood out among the national, politically oriented offerings, whispering messages of loss and remembrance more immediate, accessible, less pretentious, than the feminist conceptual games played in neighbouring pavilions
Beating her over the head is Brian Sewell:
How has it been possible for Miss Emin, once notoriously drunk and abusive, formerly “Mad Tracey from Margit”, now moaning with self-pity , to have become, as the Hayward’s panjandrum put it, one of this country’s “most renowned and celebrated artists”? How have our definitions of art and, even more preposterously, sculpture, been so elastic as to include crudely patchworked blankets, crude images of body functions, crude neon admonitions and crude lifesize dilapidations of the beach hut? Far from being “really good with words”, she is illiterate, witless, turns the alphabet topsy-turvy and employs the language of graffiti boys. Miss Emin’s words and images, laden with catharsis, are less art than bullying demands for empathy.
Skill, if she ever had any, has been usurped by celebrity; celebrity has been nourished by deliberate outrage and offence; and now, in the constant public parading of private distress, she has developed a hectoring arrogance that conflicts with what is left of the instinctive self-abjection that has always been her home-made muse.
Tracey Elements (Financial Times)
Emin’s Skill Has Been Usurped by Celebrity (Evening Standard)