Tracey Emin: She lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea at Turner Contemporary in Margate

By Ben Miller | 31 May 2012
A photo of a bed with a piece of wood on it in front of drawings inside a gallery
Exhibition: Tracey Emin: She lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, Turner Contemporary, Margate, May 26 – September 23 2012

Tracey Emin's reputation unfailingly precedes her creations every time she has a new show.

From the unmade beds (which, she says, is an almost run of the mill concept now) to Turner Prize drunkenness, infamy envelopes every fresh body of work.

Artist and art are inseparable, a fact we were reminded of at every turn in Love is What you Want, last year's fine retrospective at the Hayward, where neon proclamations of her inner turmoil punctuated an arresting pick-and-mix.

So when the entrance to this exhibition is lit by another neon, the sense that this might be a sequel to that display is immediate, and not without good reason. “The confusion is I love you”, reads one of her meandering sleights in blue. “I am telling you it hurt”, another.

What’s new is the real presence of mortality for the artist, who at 48 is feeling the effects of time. Mottled yellow letters spell out “sometimes dead”. “There is no more me”, ponders a neon (this time in turquoise) above photos of a drying riverbed she compares her youth to.

There are undoubtedly better shows to empathetically invigorate the mind and spirit – to glimpse Yayou Kusama's inner workings, currently at Tate Modern, is to see a response to personal conflict of an aesthetic and imaginative brilliance light years removed from Emin’s.

But where the technical shortcomings of Love is What you Want were excused by the tampons, cats preposterous seaside donkey rides and bountiful entertainment to be had, this more serious set of works – hitting their studious peak with comparisons to Turner and Rodin, which always feel at home at Turner Contemporary, but instantly feel incongruous in this company – lack such spark.

The accusation most readily levelled at Emin’s fiercest critics is that they take her art too seriously. For those who adore her devil-may-care attitude, the confidence and self awareness this distinctly sober exhibition symbolises is hard to begrudge.

Yet she is best when she’s at play. The Vanishing Steel Lake, a steel bath-turned-boat with a Union Jack in it, is a deeply unsubtle inference to the Brit Art days. It gives rise to the tantalising idea of Emin ditching her flag in the raft and skinnying into a lake after drinking too much at an awards ceremony.

The implorations go on, and threaten to overwhelm. “I did not say I cannot love you, I said I could never love”, suggests another gauche, presumably avoiding a previous memo to “think about being happy”, captioning a squiggle of Emin prone on the floor.

This is what you expect from her. Fans will be seduced by her usual bombastic melodrama, and everyone else will yearn for more of the variety which held the attention at the Hayward. On her return to her hometown, it would have been nice to see more insights into the colourful career Margate’s wildchild has had.

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