They’re dark and lite, sober and brash … But put Rebecca Horn and Tracey Emin side by side, and it’s the sad girl from Margate who gets my vote, says Waldemar Januszczak
Horn is the respectable one. She is significantly older, too: born in Germany in 1944, a child of the war, sanctified, you might say, by her proximity to the 20th century’s dark epicentre. To be a German artist in the 20th century is interestingly different from being from anywhere else. You carry weightier baggage into the gallery. More heft. More seriousness. I remember learning that, as a little girl, Horn read Johann Valentin Andreae’s Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosen-kreutz. Wow, I remember thinking.
And then you have Tracey. Our Tracey. Who can’t spell, can’t conjugate and would probably have been reading My Little Pony when Horn was ploughing through Kafka. Born in 1963, brought up in Margate, Tracey is the self- appointed seaside slut, the educational dropout, the proto-ladette who gets drunk on TV and goes on and on about her abortions. See what awful baggage she carries into the gallery. Thus, the art world — as snobbish a court as any that ever resided at Versailles — looks down on her every bit as instinctively as it looks up to Horn. My proposition here is that these assessments need to be reversed. Horn and Emin have far more in common than immediately meets the eye. And while one is certainly past her prime, the other is probably coming into hers.
Horn’s show is a grand affair at the Hayward Gallery. A decade ago, she was granted an ambitious retrospective by the Tate. Now here she is again, with another career survey, Bodylandscapes, whose ambition, it says, is to underline the preoccupation with the body that lies at the heart of Horn’s progress and to celebrate the importance to her of drawing.
For those, like me, who have seen rather a lot of her work, these are mildly surprising exhibition ambitions. Horn’s lofty reputation rests chiefly on the eccentric machines she builds: surreal displays of Teutonic engineering that whir and stab and crash so entertainingly around our best galleries. Who can forget the miraculous flying piano with which Horn frightened London visitors at the time of her last retrospective? A zooful of noisy techno-pets is on show here as well. There is a flock of painting machines that dribble and spit their patterns; a robotic arm that stabs a wound into a wall with a knife; a cello that plays itself; a mechanical butterfly; self-reading books that turn their own pages. The contraptions provide great theatre. But what precisely have they to do with the body? And what has drawing achieved for them, beyond providing handy explanations of how they were envisaged and planned? What certainly is true is that the creation of extra-large abstract drawings has now become a key part of Horn’s output. Long stretches of this display consist of nothing else. Packed with quick and tiny marks, these busy pencil storms seem to be the result of semiconscious confrontations be-tween the artist and her paper. They might best be called action drawings. I gather they are done at arm’s length and involve a full-body process: Pollocking with pencils. I don’t doubt that, viewed individually, they would slowly grow more distinct and beautiful. Some do it straightaway. But arranged in massed ranks, one after the other, they inevitably blur and strike you as repetitive.
By replaying those moments in Horn’s career when drawing played a prominent part, the Hayward is seeking to legitimise these large and lucrative pencil flurries, to give them a history. Thus, we have here a story told from its conclusion to its origin: a back-to-front experience. It begins superbly and fiercely, with filmed images of a woman sporting a Hannibal Lecter-like leather mask from which protrude an array of wicked spikes that turn out to be sharpened pencils. By pressing her spiky head against a wall, the woman is able to gouge a frenzied assortment of lines onto it with her fetishistic pencil mask. It is as if the shower scene in Psycho has led to abstract expressionism rather than a bloody knifing. Drawing is being presented as an act of violence.
Horn has a thing about knives. She has a thing about pencil marks and blood marks being interchangeable. She has a thing about spikes. This dark stuff endows her early art with a genuine weirdness. Both the contraptions in the show’s first gallery and the drawings from the 1960s and 1970s are distinguished by their claustrophobia, their sense of amputation, their appetite for slicing. Famously, Horn spent critical months in her youth in a hospital cell, recovering from tuberculosis, and learnt there to fear scalpels, corsets, bandages and restriction. A curious conflict continues to rage in her between fetishistic fears and S&M yearnings. She is into alchemy as well, I read, and magic.
But she is in her sixties now, a difficult age for a fetishist. There has been a noticeable easing of tension in her output of late. The hospital sensations of yore have been replaced by slick new-age vagaries produced with mirrors, lights and specially composed electronic throbs. Hannibal Lecter has turned into Brian Eno. The exhibition’s most ambitious work, Light Imprisoned in the Belly of the Whale, is both a poem and a huge installation, involving a pond of black water around which fragments of Horn’s portentous verse are projected in ghostly flashes: “Escape from the belly of ramified chaos. Trembling words search for a new order.” I’m sorry, but however large you flash it up, this remains bad poetry. It’s a decline, a fudging.
The opposite is happening with Emin. Her new show at White Cube strikes me as her most impressive collection to date. It’s called When I Think About Sex, a typical Emin title, pure Margate in its rhythms and particularly unlikely to gain her the Tate type of respect that is her due. Horn’s cosmic bluster will always play better at international biennales and the like than Emin’s poker-sharp English honesty.
Like Horn, Emin has always found it important to draw. Like Horn, she has recently taken to making this more obvious. Thus, the new show contains various female nudes, drawn and sewn in an assortment of Emin modes on blankets, sculptures, neon. Two things hold it all together. One is the prevalent colour scheme. This is Emin’s white show. The blanket pieces are white. The fabulously rickety rollercoaster at the centre of the gallery is faded white. The sad home-made rosettes to be handed out to women for being a good lay are wedding white. I suppose these are obvious contradictions between virginity and sin. But the whiteness works. It brings coherence to the overall effect and feels less dated — less art-world — than all that tedious Hugo Boss black from which the Rebecca Horn show is chiefly fashioned.
Beneath the dirty talk and the toughness, Emin has never been afraid to display her vulnerability. Her new drawings are sad and fractured. They claim to be about sex, but are really about hurt. It’s clearer than it has ever been that her drawing masters are Schiele and Munch, and that these two tortured European males have taught a tortured Margate female how to say a lot with a little.