It is a Sunday and some weeks since Tracey Emin’s latest London solo show at White Cube Bermondsey first opened to the public. Yet the people of south-east London have emerged in droves, so that at lunchtime the gallery is still milling with visitors – the fullest I have ever seen it. It is testament to the magnetism and celebrity of an artist like Emin that people continue to flock so dutifully to the austere, white-lit and grey-walled gallery to see a show entitled A Fortnight of Tears, when outside it is one of the sunniest days of the year so far. Outside, the faint hum of pop music floats down from the nearby park, while a yellow Labrador lolls out into the sunshine on the corner opposite. The scenes inside Emin’s exhibition, however, tell a starkly different story.
Emin’s show is a broadly autobiographical survey of love and loss. It is a tour de force in sculpture, neon, painting, film, photography, and drawing. The artist’s uncanny ability to stage life’s ordinary tragedies, and to be entirely candid about the experience of female pain, is on display as masterfully as ever in the demanding spaces of the White Cube. Decades of dirty laundry are paraded through the gallery; the horrors of a 1990 botched abortion, rape, and the death of her mother are the dominant topics of expression. Though much of the language and subject matter has been a constant throughout her career, it is evident that Emin has come some way from her days as a party-girl enfant terrible of contemporary British art. There is a discernible grown-upness about this exhibition; familiar, ugly subjects are returned to with a new seriousness and sensitivity, though the bite is doubtless still there.
The South Gallery I houses ‘Insomnia Room Installation’. Huge Gilcée print iPhone selfies of the artist reveal a tormented Emin in various states of physical and mental injury over four years of sleepless nights. The pictures are double hung almost up to the ceiling in a manner that falls somewhere between a teenage girl’s bedroom and a French salon. Unframed and pinned in each corner, they lift off the wall slightly, a pencil signature just visible on each bottom-right corner. We are invited to share the unhappy bed. As the first room of the show this sets the tone for the rest: sad, intimate, and earnest.
Alongside the ‘finished’ works further on in the gallery, four cases containing sketches and writings on paper, maquettes, and memorabilia are exhibited from the artist’s archive. These sketches – some on notepad pages branded with the names of hotels – are reminiscent of those doodles we draw out on paper absent-mindedly, while taking a phone call or sitting in a lecture. They have a day-to-day feel about them. The cabinets are organised thematically under the topics of love, sex, death, and fear. Indeed, these are the subjects to which the artist returns obsessively, and which percolate through every room of the gallery, bleeding into each other at the edges.
Paintings around the cabinets line the wall like the Stations of the Cross. But Emin’s protagonist keeps falling down, stumbling with her proverbial cross with little sense of any eventual redemption. We are inclined to believe that these are self-portraits, though the women’s faces are almost always obscured. Emin’s girls have soft, protruding (pregnant?) bellies, clubbed feet and hands, blurry faces, and masses of dark pubic hair. The viewer is struck by the way that the swollen nipples, breasts, and genitals always seem to be most in focus.
‘I Watched You Disappear. Pink Ghost’ is the first picture in a brilliant triptych of portraits in the Ashes Room. Blurred as if captured through tears, steam, or the fogging lens of memory, a soft rosy body floats behind the canvas, which itself perhaps imitates a shower curtain. To the right a painting about the death of Emin’s mother, ‘I Was Too Young to be Carrying Your Ashes’ ruptures any impression of shy, warm womanhood that might have been offered by that tipsy pink. Thick red paint then erupts through the curtain-canvas; with a sudden and regrettable violence, this is the moment the Hitchcockian knife wielder plunges his weapon. The picture is an open wound, a bloody, weeping sore. ‘You Were Still There’ then resuscitates a dissected body. The womb is darkened with movement like the impact of a punch. The colours shift throughout from the pink-red blushes of the Madonna to the grey blackish-blue bruised body of Christ. A punishing and merciless life-cycle is acted out.
Emin proves herself here as a painter and a sculptor of bodies, rather than figures; her subjects are not idealised forms that exist outside of the self, but those that are an extension of it. In the best of these works, the intimate understanding of the body and of a personal psychology comes out beautifully raw. They are positioned firmly within the artist’s own identity, and in the bodily violence that is the source of so much of her trauma. The bodies that Emin paints are much better than the large sculptures that dominate the space because they still feel alive – trapped between soft and hard lines, pushed and pulled and beaten out on canvas and paper. Corporeal suffering is not only acted onto the body, but oozes out from within it into art.
Love, desire, and violence are intimately linked in Emin’s world. The interactions between bodies in the paintings are like the kiss in Giotto’s frescoes, where two faces collide into one, eyes open; somehow unromantic, while still wholly passionate. The word ‘longing’ seems to have come up in titles and prose again and again throughout the exhibition. In her 1996 film How It Feels – a fitting endnote to the show – Emin comments on her abortion: “I will never really get over it”. This sits at the core of all the artwork – the wanting, the not getting, and the not getting over.
“What this whole show is about is releasing myself from shame. I’ve killed my shame, I’ve hung it on the walls,” Emin claims. Women wracked with grief and desire, aching and desperate, contort themselves with it, she seems to be saying. Everything is deeply felt and then neatly hung up. The exhibition is entitled A Fortnight of Tears because, Emin claims, that is the longest she has ever cried. For all its wailing and thrashing, this grieving process has produced an exhibition of staggering emotional complexity.