In her much-talked about retrospective, the first piece of art is not by Tracey Emin. Nor does it seem much like a work of art. Despite the frame, it is clearly also a letter from her father.
Halfway through the show is another work in which the art is hard to discern. This is a video piece called Conversation with my Mum (2000). It does what it says on the tin.
It’s been noted elsewhere that Emin is the subject of Emin’s show. Most surely know by now most of her biography. And that biog is the message, however impressive the range of media here.
There could be something in the water near Margate. Despite differences and the accusations of copying, the outputs of Emin and onetime lover Billy Childish appear to run parallel.
First there is the confessionalism, an impulse you surely either have or you don’t. It cannot all be learned behaviour. Then there is the gesamtkunstwerk of painting, drawing, writing, film, etc.
But the reason Emin is now the bigger player in the art world is not just because she moved into the conceptual arena but, equally, because she wears the former tendency better as a female artist.
Personal statements and feminist art have gone together since (at least) the 1970s, when Mary Kelly made her landmark work about pregnancy and the early years of motherhood.
Of course, we now have some real artists of autobiography, the non-conceptual celebrities who spin out their life stories in regular installments to an eager audience. It’s a thin line.
You may point out that Emin can draw and has read some philosophy. The Exhibition Guide says so. But what a strange and interesting show this would be if she couldn’t or hadn’t.
Love is What You Want is at Hayward Gallery, London, until 29 August 2011. I got the above image from Wikipedia Commons licence as photography was not permitted. But it seems to fit.