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‘Two Wounded Birds’ is the name of a contemporary indie retro-surfer rock band who play music along the lines of Sixties groups Jan and Dean or the Beach Boys. Four of the five members come from Margate, Kent. They were personally invited to play the opening gig on Saturday 26 May in the Sunley Rooms of the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in Margate by the artist whose latest exhibition opened there that day: Tracey Emin, also raised in Margate. The exhibition itself was opened, again by personal invitation, by actor and celebrity Christopher Biggins: ‘because he’s fun’, as the artist declared.
These two very personal choices epitomize the thrust of all of Emin’s work as an artist. It is about her, as an individual, as a woman; about her life, her childhood, her teen-age, her love-life, her thoughts, emotions, concerns. Just as Marcel Duchamp demonstrated – almost 100 years ago – that objets trouvés, or readymades, including the infamous urinal, were Art; just as Andy Warhol, now 50 years ago, showed that Campbell’s soup tins and multiple screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe were Art; so Emin has furthered her career on the basis that she, the artist, and everything about her, constitute Art.
This is an extensive exhibition, occupying all four-and-a-half upper-storey galleries at the Turner Contemporary. JMW Turner was only accorded two-and-a half earlier in the year. The majority of more than 130 works are new, created especially for Emin’s first-ever exhibition in the town in which she grew up, though it was she who opened the Turner Contemporary a little more than a year ago. She is proud of its success as a gallery: more than half a million visitors in its first year against predictions of 150,000. Both the exhibition and the gallery itself have been chosen to be part of the London 2012 Festival, which runs from 21 June to 9 September.
The exhibition begins on the staircase, with a Neon piece titled as the exhibition, followed by another, a reclining nude, in the North gallery. The only other exhibit here, in a gallery which magnificently overlooks the sea, is I Said No, an acrylic on board, consisting of those three words. This sparseness is fitting for an artist who doesn’t waste time with extensive backgrounds or meticulous detail. Three words, in green on a blue-white background, say what she wants to convey: and they do.
Words are an intrinsic part of what Emin produces. Many of her works, past and present, contain sprawled phrases, usually in her own handwriting, often the title of the work. When, a year ago, she was asked to produce something to adorn Droit House, a one-time Customs House which sits next to the Turner Contemporary, she came up with a pink Neon stating simply: ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ in tribute to her beloved Margate. Certainly there’s no doubt that these phrases, titles or not, are not descriptions or explanations, they are the artwork itself.
The North Gallery contains a stunning selection of new work, almost all modest-sized-to-small framed blue gouaches-on-paper, showing in the main reclining nudes, which we may take to be the artist herself. Minimalist is a word created for this type of work, for they are little more than sweeps of the brush or pen. The works are well displayed in a light airy gallery, arranged singly or in groups of two, or four, or six, or twelve, focusing attention, or forcing the eye to ramble.
A good example is I Didn’t Say, which consists of the words ‘I didn’t say I couldn’t love you’ above a reclining nude Tracey, left knee raised, floating above a blue blanket. This figure, in exactly this position, occurs in many of these new works: Full Love 8; Laying on Blue; Relax; Blue Figure; I Know; and others too. They follow on from a series created in 2007 in Sydney, all called ‘Sex’ and numbered. A sceptic might regard this as lazy repetition, but then the same would need to be said of Rembrandt’s endless self-portraits, or Monet’s haystacks and waterlilies. In reality artists see beyond the similarities to the tiny nuanced differences, as we do ourselves in our daily lives. Those nuances are heightened by the way this gallery’s exhibits are hung, and I suspect Tracey herself had a good deal to do with that.
There are other themes here besides the reclining nude; for example Breakfast at the Grotto, an exquisitely delicate sketch of two figures sitting at a stylized table. Also a number of interiors, still in blue gouache, such as The Rooms Kept Melting and More Room More Movement, both showing bedroom scenes, swiftly executed. In the centre of the room is a sculpture at shoulder height, Sphinx, in the great tradition of Symbolist artists, though with the modern twist of an undefined figure emerging from the torso of a woman.
Next door in the South Gallery is a selection of works from an exhibition Tracey held in London in 2011 with the title ‘The Vanished Lake’. The works here could not be more different from the blue gouaches. The central eponymous piece, an installation, consists of a rusting tin bath with a crumpled Union flag tossed inside. There’s little doubt it’s Emin’s comment on something, though I must confess I’m not sure what. Global warming? Capitalist greed? Why should she explain?
Along the walls of this room is a series of tapestries, also of reclining nude torsos, but this time not of the artist herself, but of Picasso’s muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter (an accompanying sketch is entitled Picasso Woman). These demonstrate the same delicacy of touch, but this time in earth colours and bold shading. They have disparate titles: Keeping You in Mind; In the Dark; Rose Virgin; Thankyou, which no doubt have meaning for the artist, but again it is typical of her that they should mean little to the viewer.
The Irene Willett Gallery – named after the mother of a local philanthropist – is in reality the ill-lit corridor between the South and North rooms. Here the curator has hung work by Emin, J.M.W. Turner, and Auguste Rodin. Turner had a major exhibition here in the early Spring, whilst the third version of Rodin’s The Kiss is currently installed downstairs in the Sunley Room. This may seem a rather curious notion, but by bringing together watercolours of the female nude by all three artists, it is possible to compare and contrast. Surprisingly, the two men share the same delicacy of touch and spareness of delineation as Emin’s work. The male perspective of the nude is not necessarily so distant from that of a female artist as one might think.
Finally, in the high-ceilinged North Gallery, three installations dominate the room. Self-portrait with my Eyes Closed, a bronze bust of the artist sits atop a tall slim wooden plinth. The pomegranate-form of The Secret of the World sits on the floor, and, thirdly, in the best traditions of Ms Emin, the heavily and revoltingly stained mattress upon which sits a branch form, called Dead Sea. On the walls, just four black embroideries, larger and gloomier than the blue gouaches, and more doom-laden than joyous. My reaction to the entire exhibition was that it speaks of extreme loneliness, but seen through a merry disposition. I’m sure I’m wrong.
If you are already a fan of Ms Emin’s work, then I might suggest this exhibition is worth not merely a special journey, but an international airline ticket to go and see (entrance free: closed on Mondays), as I don’t think you will have ever seen such a comprehensive display of her range and abilities as you will here. If, on the other hand, you are not, well, try to drift along anyway. I can’t guarantee you will have your mind changed, but you will perhaps be surprised, in the Irene Willett Gallery, to note that our Tracey is not so much a million miles away from those two grand old masters, Rodin and Turner, as you thought.
Media credit: © the artist, courtesy White Cube, photo Ben Westoby