Review: Tracey Emin

February 8, 2019

It’s been years since the last major Tracey Emin exhibition, but she returns with an agonised howl of a show exploring the gaping emotional wounds that threatened to destroy her as both an artist and a human being.

The White Cube’s first room is dominated by 50 giant selfies of Emin in bed, taken on nights when she was suffering from insomnia. She peers through the gloom, eyes bloodshot, face puffy, cheeks bearing crumple marks from her pillow. In some her breasts are exposed, in others she bears the scars of eye surgery. She has a remarkable collection of silk pyjamas. It’s hard not to draw parallels between these intimate pictures – fragile, perhaps a little defiant – and her most famous work, her own unmade bed, first displayed more than 20 years ago. But where My Bed spoke to the chaos of youth, these pictures chart the grinding monotony of age.

There are works here both familiar and the surprising. There’s a wall-sized neon – a poignant lament to a lost loved one – that’s unmistakeably Emin, as are the dozens of scratchy watercolours of female nudes, many daubed with harrowing captions (“I want my heart to stop this violent pounding… I need to escape from… the sound of my heart dying”).

A trio of huge, gelatinous bronzes, however, feel wonderfully new. One pregnant form gazes down at its empty hands, another curls into the foetal position. Their bulbous, melting bodies suggest humanity itself sinking into the ground.

The show follows a devastating few years for the artist. She returns time and again to the death of her mother, a failed abortion, the breakdown of relationships and the persistent trauma of rape. In the painting I Was Too Young to be Carrying Your Ashes she depicts herself as a vivid red figure clutching a box of her mother’s remains. Elsewhere a female nude bleeds profusely, something put into stark context in a video segment in which Emin describes, in graphic detail, miscarrying in public.

Paintings make up the bulk of the show, and while the medium isn’t her strongest suit, the repetition of ghostly figures, often made up of streaks of pink and white, suggest someone removed from society, at odds with Emin’s gobby, confrontational public persona. Some portraits stand apart, though, piling on layers of black and magenta, hinting at traumas too terrible to witness.

It’s emotionally exhausting, a window into another person’s protracted suffering. But what did you expect? This is Tracey Emin, a woman who wears her art on her sleeve. Her public record of pain is a reminder that we all suffer, and that perhaps we can emerge from the other side.