content warning: mentions of death, abortion
The last exhibition of Emin’s I had been to was probably She Lay Down Beneath The Sea at Turner Contemporary in her hometown of Margate. For me, what this current exhibition at White Cube lacked in comparison to the previous one was more context to frame the concept of the artwork. Whilst there was an A4 sheet about the exhibition overall, it felt like the viewer was being pushed to form their own meanings. Whilst formulating the meaning of the work is part of the joys of conceptual art, it is always interesting to read or listen to more, particularly for those who are not as familiar with Emin’s work as fans will be able to infer the meaning and links to past work that newcomers can’t access. I also enjoyed the work in Margate more for its skill of embroidery where the stitched looked like paint from afar, whilst pieces in this exhibit lacked this sense of innovation.
The rooms at the White Cube contained a whole range of work, including photography, paintings, sketches, sculpture, film, and her signature neons. Of these, I was least drawn to the low-fi photography of Emin in bed at night with insomnia. Whilst these were conceptually interesting in terms of the subject of loneliness, being kept awake by memories and putting yourself as the artist within the work, these self-portraits being so big and with such low-resolution weren’t necessarily that aesthetically pleasing, though perhaps this adds the unsettling feeling of being in this room.
Discovering Emin’s work as a teenager was pivotal for me, as through her visual art and her writing she had survived through so much that is familiar to many women and refused to be ashamed about neither her sexual desire nor the love she has to give.
I was most drawn to the large canvas paintings, and the room with quick, painted sketches, as well as some of the sculptures. Colour is an important factor for me when it comes to visual art, and Emin’s use of pinks, dark red tones, and black and white against the blank canvas. In the literature provided, her work is said to contain ‘the modernist angst of Edvard Munch or the heightened sexuality of Egon Schiele’s female subjects’. Discovering Emin’s work as a teenager was pivotal for me, as through her visual art and her writing she had survived through so much that is familiar to many women and refused to be ashamed about neither her sexual desire nor the love she has to give.
Discussing Emin’s work, Harry Weller talks about how she thinks of the title of the show before the work itself. This alludes to the fact that Emin considers herself more of a writer than a visual artist, which is why the concept behind the work is so integral to it. Listening to Weller, you hear the story behind the work, even in its creation of the piece For One Year, I Wrote To You Every Day. Here, it is as though the memory of unrequited love produces an anger so explicit you can almost hear the screams behind it.
It is these stories that draw me to the The Ashes Room, where the work deals with the loss of her mother, who died in 2016, but also the pain of unrequited love. One of my favourite pieces here is entitled I Sent Kisses That Came Back to Me. There is a handwritten note alongside a kneeling, crying figure, with a window in the background, evoking a kind of spiritual setting of mourning lost love in a church. In this grief, it is written.
‘I wanted you so much – Not a day went past without the thought of you being inside me – of you being part of me – I sent kisses that never reached you – I sent unrequited love that only came back to me. How could I be so wrong?’
Emin’s relationship with this experience is connected to class as well as gender, where she specifies she couldn’t afford to have the child…
There are different ways we could interpret this. From a personal perspective, I relate to the sentiment whereby this is a romantic love, that the ‘being inside’ refers to a sexual experience. However, this could also be connected to Emin’s experience of abortion, with the ‘being inside’ referring to the embryo inside the womb.
The sculpture entitled The Mother shows a giant woman with a pregnant stomach, holding something unknown in her hands. This piece is one of the first I see in the exhibition, and also immediately makes me think of Emin’s experience of abortion, also tying in with her 1996 film How It Feels, which I had previously seen at The Hayward Gallery’s 2011 exhibition of Love is What You Want. Emin’s relationship with this experience is connected to class as well as gender, where she specifies she couldn’t afford to have the child, and her desire, not to necessarily have children in the general sense, but wanting to have ‘that child’. We may infer that instead of birthing a child, she births this work, describing her creativity as coming from ‘that moment of conception’.
Having worked as a professional artist for over 20 years now, most people who enjoy art will be familiar with her work. She has proved her worth artistically, and A Fortnight of Tears feels like an exhibition where new work has found links with past work, dealing with memory and how this impacts on our daily lives.
A Fortnight of Tears ran at White Cube Bermondsey from 5th February – 7th April 2019
featured image courtesy of Mot under CC 2.0
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