Tracey, the Tent, the Bed: what other living artists or artworks do we know on such first-name, intimate, short-hand terms? The Shark – Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – comes closest but his subject is mortality. Tracey Emin’s is sex, birth and the messy business of living. Through the semblance of full personal disclosure, her works engage and enrage a wider, more socially diverse audience than, before her, contemporary art ever enjoyed in Britain.
The igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995”, and the gloriously unmade “My Bed”, surrounded by a detritus of condoms, stained knickers, cigarette stubs, are the icons with which Emin became the enfant terrible of Britart in the late 1990s. Both chronicled or implied her story of childhood abuse, teenage rape, broken relationships. As is demonstrated all too clearly at her first London retrospective, these continue to be her sole subject, raked over in drawings (“From Memory – My Abortion”), neons (“You Forgot to Kiss My Soul”), films (“Conversation with My Mum”), patchwork blankets (“And So I Left”), a bronze teddy bear (“Baby Things”) and scores of other works ranging non-hierarchically across most media available to the 21st-century installation artist.
The dominant aesthetic is ugly-sentimental and urban-vernacular, which makes the Hayward Gallery the perfect setting. Its grey concrete sympathetically offsets the multicoloured, upper-case chaos of the large textile collages (“Helter Fucking Skelter”, “Hate and Power Can Be a Terrible Thing”) that dramatically open the show in the double-height first gallery. Yet the Hayward’s brutalism also tempers the sweetness of the kitsch graffiti neons (“Life Without You Never”, “I Can Feel Your Smile”) displayed in a black-out corridor gleaming like tacky Margate, the artist’s home town, on a Saturday night.
At its end, the movie show begins: Emin on horseback in “Riding for a Fall”, Emin in “Why I Never Became a Dancer” (1995), narrating her teenage bid to win a talent competition only to be booed offstage by chants of “slag”. She finishes by whirling a frenzied disco number, alone and liberated: the best revenge is to live well. Except, as she tells us insistently, with buckets of irony and self-pity by turns, she doesn’t. In the photograph “I’ve Got It All” (2000), a flurry of banknotes and coins – but nothing else – appears to pour out of her crotch. Against a baby-pink background, a 2002 patchwork reads in black letters “I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone”. Upstairs, a large central screen shows “Those Who Suffer Love” (2009), an animated drawing of a woman masturbating. “It’s about what happens to your mind in middle age,” says Emin, who will be 48 in July.
As a trajectory from youth to menopause via memory, this is hardly Mrs Dalloway, yet the show is a unique and peculiar sort of triumph. In the absence of the tent, destroyed in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, and “My Bed”, which Charles Saatchi has refused to loan (it will star in his own show next year), not a single piece here is important, formally innovative, or even memorable by itself. Instead, Emin’s effect is diffuse, non-concentrated: a narrative piled up from a host of minor-key, wiry drawings, always of herself, mostly of her legs splayed open, alongside personal relics – from tampons to a spool of thread entitled “The First Time I Was Pregnant I Started to Crochet the Baby a Shawl”. In their very smallness and insignificance – that feeble, spidery line, those minuscule headless bodies disappearing on the page – as well as the ingratiating tone, Emin matches form and content: look at the result, all these images and words screech when put together, of abuse and neglect.
If much is mind-numbingly familiar, that is in part because trauma is wearyingly narcissistic but also because Emin is a victim of her own success. No one in visual art has more powerfully given a voice – high-pitched, in-your-face, authentic – to disaffected female working-class experience, especially in youth: the subject simply did not feature on the high cultural agenda until Emin put it there two decades ago. Now a Royal Academician, she remains a force for tolerance and social change. At the Venice Biennale in 2007, I was among the minority of critics who admired the bravery and honesty of her paintings referencing her abortions: private, domestic-scale works that stood out among the national, politically oriented offerings, whispering messages of loss and remembrance more immediate, accessible, less pretentious, than the feminist conceptual games played in neighbouring pavilions by Sophie Calle and Isa Genzken.
As mark-making, though, these paintings are nothing special. Desperately dull, moreover, is the latest photograph, a back view, covered by a flag, called “Running Naked”, and the new sculptures such as a Goldilocks-assemblage of wood and bronze: a middle-sized block, a totemic mass, a tiny chair, forming “Mother, Father, Children”. Seen at a stretch, Emin’s work irritates as well as coheres: there is so much repetition, no development – aesthetic or emotional – and scant visual excitement. The show is not chronological and struggles with themes: meandering through it is like having an adolescent droning at your side. “Fuck Off and Die You Slag” bawls one red-on-black neon. But another – the calligraphic “When I Go to Sleep I Dream of You Inside of Me” – raises a wry smile at the extreme of teenage longing.
“My Bed” will be the one Emin work that gets into the history books – plus the story of her life-as-performance, a morphing of personality and persona more seamless than for other living sculptures such as Gilbert and George or Grayson Perry. All belong to the English eccentric tradition; Emin adds the confessional aesthetic developed from Louise Bourgeois, a feminist slant on text art, and a wild nostalgia for European expressionism. By coincidence, a rare show of drawings by her hero Egon Schiele also opened in London this week. Both Schiele and Emin depict the naked, sexualised body – tremulous, exposed, fragmented, alone. The difference is Schiele’s infallibly assured line versus Emin’s shaky blurred one, and his transfiguration of suffering into something symbolic, universal. Emin is never a symbolist but an emotional realist. For better or worse, her work is rooted in herself, at this moment: art for now, not for ever.
‘Tracey Emin, Love Is What You Want’, Hayward Gallery, London, to August 29