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Tracey Emin is probably the best known of all the Young British Artists after Damien Hirst, and certainly the most famous female YBA. This exhibition currently at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the first ever independently curated retrospective of Emin’s work.
Her trademark confessional style is most clearly exemplified in My Bed: a bed and collection of items around it displayed as an instillation – intended to be a frank snapshot of her life. The piece was nominated for the Turner prize, but did not win.
The one thing that I find quite annoying about Emin’s work is her use of body fluids in instillations. It isn’t really shocking and it certainly isn’t interesting. An artist must be pretty jaded if they think the only way they can move their audience is through repulsion. I suppose if you were interested in Freud it might be of use in assessing the artist’s stage of psychological development, but if you are more sane than all that it just marks the artist as manipulative and insincere.
What Emin has done successfully is develop a distinctive feminine and political aesthetic, as can be seen in her series of appliqué quilts, starting with a piece she compiled as a résumé listing places she had lived and quotes from her family. Like Damien Hirst she now employs assistants to construct many of her artworks, particularly the pieces in the quilt series (another contentious point for those who don’t buy the Warhol factory argument).
From the galleries I’ve visited this week in Edinburgh it seems that the Scottish are very enthusiastic about maintaining visitor books at art exhibitions. At the Impressionism in Scotland exhibition currently showing at the main galleries I saw a man get quite agitated waiting for a room attendant to bring him a working pen so he could scribble his (profound I’m sure) thoughts on Degas.
I took note of the two most recent comments in the visitors book at the Emin show:
“Margate has a lot to answer for.”
“Overrated. So you can make a collage quilt? No one cares. Stay in bed.”
Conceptualism really shouldn’t be that scary.
Earlier this year I was volunteering at an art gallery in Sydney where people would come and ask me in all earnestness if things in the gallery were art. With the emphasis on ‘art’ as if they might be some other mysterious conceptual thing. No ma’am, it’s a unicorn.
And these questions weren’t even about those weird humidity testing boxes people always observe so intently at the modern art gallery, but rather artworks clearly identified with plaques beside them. I wish people would just calm down about modern art. You can accept these conceptual installations without liking them. A lot of modern art is bad art.
The perfect antidote to the over-hyped Emin exhibition is conveniently located across the road in the Dean Gallery, the extension of the main modern art gallery holding most of the permanent collections.
I spent most of my time in the dada and surrealism gallery – a few small rooms full of lots of interesting paintings by Salvador Dali and Man Ray, Magritte’s only shaped canvas (following the curves of a woman’s hips and lower torso) and an extensive collection of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculptures. Things that where shocking and different when they were created and still have the power to make you think in a different way. I’m sure people are still making that sort of art. Just maybe not Tracey Emin.
Tracey Emin – 20 Years
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Belford Road, Edinburgh