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On Friday I went back to the National Gallery to have a closer look at LOVE – a touring exhibition curated in partnership with Bristol’s Museums, Galleries & Archives and Tyne & Wear Museums. I went quickly through on Wednesday, but wanted to have a proper look at it all (and take up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hang something on the National Gallery’s esteemed walls).

I really enjoy small thematic exhibitions when they are well done. Working at a gallery earlier this year I found that exhibitions with a theme were generally the most popular and the most fun to work at. While you can get tired of an single exhibiting artist’s ‘rugged rural aesthetic’ surprisingly quickly, when you have a collection of works by multiple artists there is always something exciting to find.

LOVE only takes up about three rooms of the gallery, but includes a huge range of styles, eras and subjects. It covers themes of religious devotion, romantic love, parental love, desire and charity. There are works from major artists including Goya, Vermeer, Chagall, Raphael, Turner, plus contributions from some modern artists: David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono.

I wasn’t aware that Ono was taken at all seriously as an artist until I saw that she had a piece in the Sydney Biennale this year (not that being included in the Sydney Biennale is a definitive mark of being taken seriously as an artist). I suppose this is just unfair skepticism about the value of performance art on my part, and distrust of incidental celebrity. Her work in the Biennale was a telephone (attached to a nondescript wall) which she planned to call at various (undisclosed) times during festival. I didn’t hear it ring.

In LOVE Yoko Ono’s contribution was Secret Piece III – (from the catalogue):

“A new conceptual work of art, conceived by Yoko Ono, will develop as the exhibition takes place, one that encourages contemplation on the visual articulation of love. Secret Piece III invites each visitor to contribute an image of, or a message for, a loved one to a blank canvas… The personal, subjective visions that make up its whole are a sign of life in the twenty-first century, for place and time have always shaped works of art and their means of communication.”

Some of the contributions were quite funny:

I love me.*

I love scientology this much: [with a accompanying tiny double sided arrow.]

I made you a cookie, but I eated it.

I used to love you. Now I love my friends.

SCOTLAND: MY LOVE, MY HEART.

It’s irritating that I’m doing this because Yoko Bloody Ono has told us to… but I can’t help it because, Quentin, I love you so much.

Other messages were quite sincere:

I LOVE YOU! Dear someone who I meet someday. LOVE & PEACE. It’s all about the world.

I wish I loved you enough to tell you everything.

The dance floor is never the same without you.

I feel more like me when you’re there, than when you’re not.

My sweet grandma. I love you and miss you so very much, I am eating lots of chocolate because the little Indian lady at the corner shop reminds me of you.

All these lyrics. Moments between us. Shadows on the blinds, mixed together with your taste. This is how I love you right now.

Now I don’t think I’m really excited enough about conceptual art to write anything particularly profound about it. But I have one opinion. If your artwork is nothing but an idea, it really should be an idea that people engage with.

If people look at The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and think ‘that shark is looking a bit fishy’, the artwork isn’t too successful.

I really liked Secret Piece III. People were obviously enjoying engaging with it, and the things people had to say about love were an interesting contribution to an exhibition that showcased many different types of emotion.

But what did I write on the love wall?

On behalf of Lydia and Pete (who are probably still skulking around AGNSW waiting for Yoko’s call):

DSC00809.JPG

*Other ‘I love [blank]’ comments: dogs, cats, my cat, ‘Marco the string zebra’, shoes, cheese blend and ‘be bop’.

Here is the funniest thing I’ve read in a while:

Damien Hirst, conceptual artist (and White Cube YBA like Emin), responds to a bad review from Australian art critic Robert Hughes:

“He probably cried when Queen Victoria died.”

He may not know how to pickle a shark, but he’s at least got a handle on defensive retorts.

Emin

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

&

Dean Gallery

Belford Road, Edinburgh

August 2017
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