Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I have never particularly liked modern art.
To me 'modern' art was just a bit of a big joke. As if there were some secret society of individuals who thought they would make a mockery of classical painting by making childish scribbles, simplistic cube compositions or ridiculous installations which looked like nothing more creative than a piece of domestic waste. I was convinced that this 'modern' art was lacking in skill, artistry and meaning. I had been educated about eighteenth-century European painting and sculpture. The art I was used to was enormous canvases of oil painting, painstakingly rendered to produce a dramatic, engaging and emotive visual piece. I had been on a university study trip to Paris and stood for half an hour in front of Jacques-Louis David's 'Intervention of the Sabine Women' and felt tears welling up in my eyes. 
When was the last time a piece of modern art had this effect?

Tracey Emin had always seemed to me like the high priestess of modern art. She exhibited an UNMADE BED. If this was art, come to my house. It's a gallery of similar treasures.

Then last weekend, as part of our resolution to be more cultured, my housemates and I went to see the Emin retrospective exhibition at the Southbank Centre. There were some pieces in this collection which confirmed my opinions about modern art. I don't particularly like to see used tampons at any time, let alone on display in a glass cabinet and I'm not fond of rough sketches of nude women exposing their genitalia.

 Emin's work essentially confronts the idea of what could be classified as art. It is raw, provocative and deeply personal. What is on display is not just material objects which she has produced but representations of and revelations about her memories, thoughts and emotions. I used to think that modern art couldn't or didn't mean anything, that it wasn't an expression of a frame of mind or an opinion. Emin's work is the exact opposite. In a certain respect she is fearless. She has put on display the worst parts of herself and the most traumatic events of her life for all to see. The first room of blankets are like large tapestry scrapbooks of her diaries. Recounted memories are interwoven with quotes and profane outbursts, but all on the traditionally feminine medium of patchwork embroidery. This startling juxtaposition establishes the fragile and tempestuous relationship between how society, and more specifically men, view women and how Emin views herself.

The other piece which dominates the room is the sculpture 'Knowing My Enemy'. An homage to her father, this partially collapsed wooden pier with a small hut at the end, is a physical manifestation of the dream he had of a place that he, and hopefully she too, could find happiness.  The structure at once represents a certain loneliness but strangely also a sense of peace.

The neon signs in the following room are a classic example of Emin's sharp wit and ability to condense a  complex idea into a simple phrase: 'Is anal sex legal? Is legal sex anal?', 'I know, I know, I know' and 'People like you need to fuck people like me' are just some of the delights, alongside the show's namesake:

The films were, in my opinion, the most expressive and intimate pieces of the exhibition. 'Why I never became a dancer' is a palimpsest of scenes from Emin's hometown Margate. The commentary is a sweet, revealing narration of Emin's first sexual experiences and the beginnings of her unstable relations with men. As a young girl she submitted to the abusive taunts of a group of men she had slept with and abandoned her youthful dream of dancing. The film then ends with an adult, uninhibited, Emin dancing freely and herself taunting the camera lens with a wry grin. The most affecting of the films was a twenty minute interview with Emin about her reaction to having an abortion. It was horrifyingly sad. She speaks in such graphic detail about the physicality of the abortion as well as her thought process leading up to it and afterwards that you are completely taken aback. You feel traumatised and heartbroken watching it to the end.

I wouldn't say that the exhibition changed my opinion about modern art in its entirety but I feel very differently about Tracey Emin. Despite the somewhat unusual nature of installations such as the unmade bed, there is a definite sense of purpose and meaning to Emin's work. She has something provocative and interesting to say in her pieces, and although the medium may not be what I am used to, I think the message is one of great import.


(all images courtesy of loveiswhatyouwant)

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