Tracey Emin is still ‘a teenager in pain’ — but the pain is real, says Waldemar Januszczak
Look at the state of our roads. Where can you go these days without the damn things being dug up and redirected? Huge swathes of contemporary London make Michael Jackson’s face look as unscarred as a baby’s bottom. Look at the marriages of everyone you know. Who isn’t sniffing around the lampposts and breaking up? Look at our art galleries, suspended in a state of perma-flux and constantly seeking to alter themselves. I see the National Gallery is out and about with the begging bowl again, poised to embark upon another £100m refurbishment, when it has only just finished the last £100m refurbishment. Why? For the same reason that Michael Jackson gave himself a new nose. They’re addicted to tinkering.
Thus, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford has noisily relaunched itself as Modern Art Oxford. Is it a place? A concept? A fancy? The words don’t tell us. We used to know what the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford was. How can we ever know what Modern Art Oxford is? Why has Channel 5 suddenly become Five? Why must poor old Omnibus be killed off and reincarnated as Imagination? Whoever invented the concept of rebranding needs to be chained up and locked in a cell with a picture of Michael Jackson’s face. They are a menace to society.
To go with its new moniker, MAO has also had a serious refit. The last refit created more problems than it solved. As did the one before that. So what they’ve basically done now is remove these various accretions and re-turn the gallery to its original state. Thus, the whole cycle of chronic face-lifting has been undone and can begin again. To be fair, the new galleries are an improvement. Much of the original warehouse spaciousness has been recovered, and MAO feels altogether cleaner, less cluttered, more open. It’s clever of them, too, and very knowing, to open this new chapter with a Tracey Emin show. When you get Tracey, you get attention.
Squinting through the white noise of her presence, I see that Emin’s new show confirms a telling expansion in her output. She’s started to paint pictures. That’s right: Tracey’s become a painter. Oil on canvas. Very traditional. Who would have thought it? From a distance, the new paintings seem ever so hesitant, and particularly pale. A sparrow walking across the snow makes darker marks than these. And the action has retreated to the centre of the canvas, as if it dare not step too near the edges. You have to get right up close to these tiny clusters of hesitant brush strokes before you see that they portray the artist in bed, naked, pleasuring herself. That’s Tracey for you. Scared and outrageous in the same breath.
I have always suspected that an exceedingly traditional presence hides behind the angry Brit-Art curtains that Emin displays to the world, and her new show, with its pale and delicate paintings, proves it. There is also a video-piece showing Tracey in her new garden, pruning the roses. I was delighted to see that she wears her gold jewellery while she gardens.
Emin has always skipped merrily across her media, employing all sorts of methods to lambast us with her story: neon pieces, word-blankets, unmade beds, hand-sewn tents, nude photographs, diary extracts, videos, films, sculptures, performances. She’s like an angry woman in a kitchen, reaching to throw whatever is at hand. Her shows offer just about the most bewilderingly varied experience currently available in contemporary British art. This one is particularly disparate, and ranges from a small dark room filled with neon curses to a huge white one, dominated by a giant re-creation of a tumbledown Margate pier.
Yet, underlying these frantically jumpy methods is an utterly consistent ambition: to inveigle her thinking into your thinking. She’s like a virus determined to hack into your memory and plant there the utterly tangible atmosphere of her third-rate English childhood. In angry mode, she gives us a blanket, sewn with words, packed with expletives, remembering a nasty walk down a typical British street during which the Emin family were shouted at and called wogs. In sweet mode, she gives us a drawing of her favourite bird, a fragile little thing on a branch, which I happen to recognise as a blackcap, that most timid of warblers. It’s surely intended as a kind of symbolic self-portrait. Careering between hard and soft modes, from tough to vulnerable, Emin’s art employs the alternate tactics of a dysfunctional teenager, who shouts or weeps to get her way.
There are those who expect her to have grown out of all this by now. Who complain that the constant references to the sadnesses of her past — her abortion, her rape, the racism she encountered as the daughter of a Turkish father — signal a pathetic inability to move on. Because Emin is no longer poor and, these days, models Vivienne Westwood on Fashion Week catwalks, her continuing obsession with her lower-caste origins is somehow viewed as phoney. But it is precisely because the sadnesses and pains of childhood leave such immovable stains that Emin has made them the chief focus of her work.
There’s a splendidly splenetic drawing in the show, in which she savages a prissy former teacher who made her life a misery at school. You know the type. They hurt you. They say things. They’re unforgettable. Emin’s point is that the kind of damage that such a teacher inflicts can actually take a lifetime to heal. And I believe her. It’s why her work carries so much emotional poke. And why she isn’t ready to stop going on about it just yet.
Over at the Serpentine Gallery, a Japanese invasion of wall space has taken place.Takashi Murakami, whose work carries no emotional poke whatsoever, has covered every available square inch with his lurid comic-book paintings and sculptures, featuring a zooful of cute Pokémon types, and huge fields of grinning flowers and mushrooms.
My wife is Japanese. I know the place better than some. And I have never worked out how or why it is that, within these exceedingly sophisticated and intelligent people, there courses such a wide streak of raw, undiluted infantilism. Why do 70-year-old men sit there on the Tube reading comics? Murakami is basically a kid obsessed with manga who has never grown up and who makes his living thinking up variations on them. The entire exhibition feels like a mad imprisonment within a Hello Kitty warehouse. It’s in the nature of such entrapments that the way out is not nearly as easy to find as it should be. Help.