No British artist has achieved such fame and fortune on the basis of such slender talent as Tracey Emin. We all – including Emin herself – know this; the interesting point is why it happened. It certainly has something to do with her roots in Margate, which makes it worth visiting her homecoming show, She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea, at Turner Contemporary, the museum launched there a year ago with Emin’s support.
From this array of drawings, gouaches and monoprints, new pieces almost all featuring spindly, tremulous, abbreviated, horizontal nude self-portraits – sometimes curled up in misery or asleep, more often with legs splayed wide open, waiting, dreaming, masturbating – and accompanied by framed scraps of graffiti scrawl (“Never Forget Me”, “SAY NO To Another Broken Heart”), it would be easy to conclude that Emin has come home to regress to a primary school “show and tell” survey. In fact, her work has always been childish at best – adolescent more often – and this modest show, the opposite of a triumphal return, has a concentration and authenticity that does her more favours than last year’s swollen Hayward retrospective.
Emin’s sole theme – the pain of love and longing – best suits small-scale, spontaneous means of expression, and Margate’s sympathetic installation across three galleries gives maximum force to the limited variations she brings to that expression. The bright, sea-facing room contains blue gouaches that, though exhibiting no particular mastery of drawing, are the most beautiful things Emin has done – spare, light, unpretentious. The flowing, looping outlines of fragile figures on white grounds suggest now turbulence or alarm, now ecstasy but always – as implied by the show’s title and helped by the view of the sea – a sense of the body overwhelmed by tidal waves of feeling.
A darker room, painted 18th-century green, evokes a domestic interior and is dominated by tapestries – “Rose Virgin”, “Keeping You In Mind” – in which her instantaneous drawings are slowed into appliqué, made formally, ironically, old-fashioned. Sculptures feature in the third gallery: mock reprises of “My Bed” and the tent “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-93”, which gained Emin celebrity in the 1990s. “Dead Sea” is a dirty mattress on which rests a stick, with an upturned phallic twig. “Self-portrait With My Eyes Closed” is a tapering wooden plinth topped with a crumbly, inchoate patinated bronze form.
“Sex 1 25-11-07 Sydney”; “Berlin The Last Week in April 1998”; “Blue Figure II I’m Telling You It Hurt”: Emin’s titles show the flagrant narcissism of her entire endeavour. Yet though her self-depictions – amplified by her self-presentation as a sort of living sculpture documenting the effects of child abuse, teenage rape, neglect – are clearly compulsive, her tenacity and spirit of survival impress.
Her oeuvre, though, soon palls. Any autobiographical work must square the circle between art’s formal demands and the quest for honesty. Emin’s favourite artists, Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, were formal innovators, as well as pioneers of the art of interiority and psychodrama that are key elements of modernism. Though never challenging or surprising, Emin is best seen as a postscript to expressionism, relentlessly explicit as she unceasingly revisits her own narrative.
This is where Margate comes in. “I realise how lucky I am coming from Margate. It’s a romantic, sexy, fucking weird place to come from. I didn’t come from the suburbs,” she says. Indeed, someone from a more sophisticated background could not have constructed her gritty, urban-deprived life story, or infused it, unembarrassed, with an extravagant, too-late romanticism, tempered in turn by Emin’s embrace of Margate-resonant media such as neon.
“I followed you into the water knowing I would never return” reads one neon here. It is in this romantic context, rather than hubris, that one must interpret her bizarre, somehow naive gesture of showing, alongside her own scratchy drawings, figure studies by Turner and Rodin. Of course these highlight her own weakness, but the juxtaposition is also a triumph for the democratisation of art, the breakdown of class and regional/metropolitan barriers, which Emin by her life-as-performance has helped effect in the past two decades. The great thing about Margate’s show is that it is taking place here at all.
‘Tracey Emin: She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, from today to Sept 23, www.turnercontemporary.org