Thursday, May 5, 2022

Tracey Emin: A Journey to Death is so brutally honest it brought tears to my eyes

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The artist’s new show explores the trauma of the cancer surgery that almost took her life. It is her most painful work to date

Sexual assault, devastating heartbreak, ambivalence surrounding motherhood, grief and longing have found their way into her art, whether as films, quilts, neons, sculptures or paintings.

Tracey Emin has been there for as long as I’ve ‘known’ contemporary art, half a generation before me. She has dug up her life and articulated sentiments on issues that have felt unspeakably private, from adolescent sexuality to menopause. For many women, myself included, their work was a kind of camaraderie. A confirmation that we are not ashamed of difficult and painful experiences, but could instead force them into the public arena.

your short film Why I never became a dancer (1995) takes us back to Emin’s time as a sexually precocious teenager in Margate, Kent, when her dreams of winning a disco competition were shattered by men shouting “slag” from the sidelines. In how it feels (1996) she describes her experience of a horribly unsuccessful abortion.

As she got older, Emin was characteristically open about aging. In 2019, she exhibited dozens of photographs taken in the middle of the night during the insomnia that many women experience during menopause. They showed their readjustment to a changing face that looked wrinkled, exhausted, even hurt in some cases. She gave herself a long, unflattering look.

More recently, Emin preceded me through something less expected – major abdominal surgery and a stoma. She’s been through a lot: a huge operation for squamous cell carcinoma of the bladder, which removed her bladder, uterus, ovaries, lymph nodes, urethra and part of her vagina. She now lives with a urostomy pouch, which she has shown in photos and discussed in interviews with characteristic candor.

Of course, I cannot and will not equate my experience with theirs. Still, Emin’s documentation of her transformed body and a digestive system dependent on medical paraphernalia has resonated enough to be painful. I am filled with admiration for how open she has been about her treatment, her fears and her engagement with a body that once danced and seduced but is now adorned with tubes, pouches and bodily fluids.

The tremendous physical effects of the surgery have made it difficult for Emin to get back into the painting business. The trauma had an impact, as did the nearness of death. Interviews the artist gave in 2020 suggested things were tipping over at the time: she worried she wouldn’t make it through Christmas. At the end of the following year she received the all-clear.

Emin used to say that she thought with her body. No wonder it took a while for her to think back to being an artist.

A journey to death – a three room exhibition of work Emin has done over the past year – has just opened at the Carl Freedman Gallery next to her Margate home and studio complex.

When I visited before the opening, conversations could be heard booming through the door of Emin’s studio: The artist was holding a merry get-together for friends, the first since her surgery. The celebration was not so much for the exhibition as for the mere fact that she was alive.

The first room consists of smaller lithographs the size of a bathroom mirror, as if we were standing next to Emin as she examines herself. Created in 2021, she gropes her way back into art in these spindly, blue-black images. Most express pain, but there is also hope: the faces of their kittens, Pancake and Teacup, appear in one, as emblems of life to go.

As so often in the past, text finds its way into her work. “It was inside—always inside,” she writes, the words floating above her head on “Even Saying Nothing is a Lie.” It is a vivid, terrifying expression of a haunted body: the realization that a hostile presence has manifested itself within, silently attacking from within.

Emin is a very physical artist: a lot of her previous work was about hurting her body. There’s an obscene continuity here in this emotionally candid work, which delves into the successive injuries of cancer, surgery, and the tubes and bags that keep them alive.

The next two rooms contain a flood of works created earlier this year that deal with the pain and specter of death in somber tones of black and gray. All are monoprints made on a massive scale.

Emin had to paint each screen in an hour to be able to print from it: it’s a high stakes process. The resulting images have the loose, gestural quality of painting, but an odd flat blur from the print. There’s something oddly spooky about them: they’re transferred traces of markings.

In Lady of DeathEmin introduces herself as the Haitian-born actress Jeanne Duval, lover of the French poet Baudelaire, who was painted by Edouard Manet in 1862 as a small dark figure lying in an ocean of white petticoats.

At the time of Manet’s painting, this fascinating woman was debilitated by syphilis and losing her sight: she would die later that year. By posing over those huge skirts, Emin underscores her autonomy – she is no one’s lover and no one’s subject – but like Duval, she is chillingly aware of her mortality.

The moon is a recurring emblem: the bedfellow of the insomniac. It floats like a halo behind her head or hangs low over her aching and crawling body.

Emin has always placed herself at the center of her work, but the emotions she has explored in the past have positioned her body in relation to other characters through sex, love, companionship, childhood attachment, longing or regret. A monumental bronze sculpture of a reclining figure created a year before she was diagnosed with cancer – i lie here for you (2019) – to be installed at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh next month. Here the body is still a place of love.

In the new works, the isolated figures instead look at themselves. The antagonist is within. In the darkest picture here – The end of the day – Emin presents herself dejected and defeated, the center of her pinched face reduced to a tense cross. It feels like an expression of exhaustion, desperation, being thrown onto inner resources that you are no longer sure will take you further: at the end of the day you are just yourself. It brought me to tears.

Emin’s work has always explored extremes: no emotion left half-felt, no memory unexplored. Also this title A journey to death – is dramatic. It might seem an odd choice for someone whose life appears to have been saved, but it’s also brutally true: she’s still on a journey to her death, as are we all.

On a bright day in Margate, a long line formed outside the gallery before it opened. Some had traveled hundreds of miles to be there. As an artist whose raw material has always been her own life, Emin’s experience of pain and illness has touched an extraordinary number of people. It felt like a historic event: Emin’s return, transformed.

Tracey Emin: A Journey to Death is at the Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate, until June 19th

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