On Now: Tracey Emin’s “How It Feels”

The security guard sits absent-mindedly, bored, at the entrance to the exhibition, seemingly unphased by the strange combination of disco, piercing screams, and melancholy reggae emanating from the darkened rooms of the gallery space. Visitors move uncertainly into the exhibit, as if entering some seaside carnival funhouse, or a bad memory.

Tracey Emin's "How It Feels" (courtesy of MALBA)
Tracey Emin’s “How It Feels” (courtesy of MALBA)

Small neon pink letters glow from the centre of a large black wall, reading, simply, “How It Feels”, the title of British artist Tracey Emin’s first exhibition in Latin America, hosted by the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA) with the collaboration of the British Council and curated by Philip Larratt-Smith. The show is the only one to date devoted exclusively to her video works, which loop repeatedly in their small rooms like archival footage from Emin’s subconscious.

Emin, born in 1963, is a leading figure of the Young British Artists, a group that includes Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili, whose works are characterised by their diverse mediums (formaldehyde and elephant dung among them), their controversial effrontery towards public sensibility, and, in Emin’s case, an extreme willingness to allow the viewer a glimpse into private, at times uncomfortable, moments. Emin has long delved into her own life as inspiration for her art, taking the most personal of experiences and laying them bare for a sometimes offended, yet helplessly curious, audience.

One of her most famous works, an installation piece titled “My Bed”, consists of her own unmade bed complete with yellowed sheets, empty vodka bottles, packs of cigarettes, stained drawers, and a used condom. Another piece, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995”, featured a tent with various names sewn on, ranging from lovers, to family members, to her own aborted children. While critics accuse her of “conning” the public or exploiting her own private life, sympathetic viewers might find, in her work, a desire to connect at the most intimate level, even at the expense of privacy or propriety.

The five videos displayed in “How It Feels”, made between 1995 and 2000, are a bit more subtle yet no less personal than the rest of her body of work (which includes sculpture, painting, photography, fabric-work, literature, prints, and drawings). The first, upon entering the exhibit, “Love is a Strange Thing” (2000), is the most recent and least serious of the five. A humorous encounter with a drooling mastiff pokes fun at the promiscuity suggested by Emin’s earlier works.

“Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children” (1998) is decidedly darker. The two-minute video plays in the smallest, most cramped of the five rooms, and features the artist nude in the foetal position on a Norwegian dock. The peaceful lapping of waves is interrupted by prolonged, anguished screams. If “How It Feels” can be thought of as a cross-section of Emin’s memories or subconscious, then “Homage” is like an open psychological wound, the screams audible throughout the entire exhibit.

The centrepiece and namesake of the exhibit, “How It Feels” (1996) is the longest of the works on display and features Emin at her most candid. A lengthy and descriptive discussion with an unidentified interviewer on the abortion of her twins at age 18 touches on issues of religion, class, disease, guilt, parenthood, and artistic failure. The reasons for her controversial openness in art are made explicitly clear.

“Why I Never Became a Dancer” (1995), projected on a wall-sized screen at the rear of the exhibit, evokes the nostalgia of a home video with its grainy, washed out images of Emin’s childhood home of Margate. In a calm voice, she describes life in the small coastal town as well as her first sexual encounters with older men. Faded images of seagulls, the ocean, and boardwalk shops are depicted as Emin describes the anger, embarrassment, and disillusionment with small-town life that caused her to eventually flee. The conclusion is tinged with a self-justification that almost seems involuntary.

Finally, “Riding for a Fall” (1998) is the simplest yet most compelling of the videos. The title is taken from the reggae song that provides the soundtrack, in which the singer warns a love interest that her pride is bound to one day bring her low. Emin appears on horseback on a Margate beach, cowboy-hatted, her shirt unbuttoned to reveal a black bra. She looks defiantly, almost sadly at the camera, only occasionally smiling enigmatically beneath the cowboy hat. Her return to Margate as a successful artist is tainted by the underlying sense, suggested by the song’s melancholy lyrics, that hers is a sad story, and will continue to be despite artistic and commercial success.

“How It Feels” runs until 25th February at MALBA, Av. Figueroa Alcorta 3415. A catalogue of criticism of her video work is available in both English and Spanish for AR$60.

Content originally appeared at The Argentina Independent.


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