How do galleries choose an image to promote an exhibition? Sometimes it’s relatively easy, finding an image which represents Rothko or Henry Moore just a question of picking a typical, more or less interchangeable example. Other exhibitions offer a wealth of good options, and if they lead to controversy, all the better: the fuss over the pubic hair (or not) of Cranach’s Venus created a lot of not-unwelcome publicity.
Images need to be striking and to catch the eye. But they also ought to be a reasonable representative of the artworks being exhibited – representative in both senses, typical and emissary.
With this in mind, the Hayward’s choice of image to promote the current Tracey Emin retrospective is, to say the least, questionable. It’s a blurry photograph of a cobbled street. A naked woman, seen from behind, is running down the street, the lower half of her body visible. The top half of her body is hidden by a large Union flag which she holds in the air.
It’s a striking image, to some extent – naked bodies always attract the eye, just ask publicity-hungry protestors – but there’s nothing special about it, nothing that really grabs or holds the attention. It’s anonymous; this could be any street, any body. And it’s impersonal; the woman’s body bared for the camera, as usual, looked at, unseeing. She (we assume) doesn’t have a name, a stitch of clothing, or even, poor thing, a head.
In all of these ways, the image is at odds with the exhibition it represents. Emin’s work is nothing if not particular, personal, concrete. It’s her life, her face, her body, her words, her voice, her handwriting and handiwork that assaults you throughout the exhibition. She is exposed; not passively, blindly baring herself to your gaze, but glaring back at you hard enough to make you squint and flinch.
Her body features in these works many times, but it’s not the easy, objectified flesh of the running-away photograph, it’s a body which comes with a mind and a history and a personality of immense force. Rendered in sketchy, vivid ink, sprawled and masturbating, its tribulations recorded in sometimes nauseating detail, its by-products displayed in plastic tubes, this is not a body which permits a simple eroticisation.
Many different media are on show in this retrospective, and Emin is able to create successful works in all of them. Her use of traditionally feminine, domestic craft techniques – quilt making, embroidery, collage, letter-writing – intensifies the effect of the often-savage ideas and memories expressed.
The appliqued blankets which tell stories of her life, tracing themes (childhood travels, teenage shame, the death of sexual desire), look beautiful collected in one place. Get closer and you discover more, patches of small scribbled text amongst the large cloth letters which spell out messages and blazon important names and dates.
Throughout the exhibition there’s an exhausting amount of text, an almost obsessive recording of life stories and memories, all told with a directness and lack of pretension which draws you in, but enough of a sense of art and timing to keep you reading.
Much of Emin’s art is like that; it appears crude, childlike, and intuitive, but its careful spacing and balance demands a great deal of skill, planning and aesthetic intelligence. One of her great talents is to retain that sense of immediacy, the sting and the degradation of sickness and humiliation, within a tightly controlled artistic space.
The drawings are, as many have noted, outstanding. She portrays a great deal with a very few simple lines. The body here isn’t something to be leered at and possessed - faceless, it's contorted in its own private pain and pleasure. There's a sense that runs throughout Emin's work of wanting to regain and declare possession of her own body, to police its boundaries and to own even its rejected products. Movement is a big part of this: the triumphant and deliberate way she moves in the films is a declaration of independence without words.
For me the least successful works are the neon signs that spell messages (‘love is what you want’, for example, which gives the exhibition its name). Compared to her other work they’re too telegraphic, crude, simple... too commercial and cheap, too easy. They don’t have that howl or tenderness of feeling.
Because much of what’s here is surprisingly tender: both the tenderness of family love (her tributes to her nan and her dad, her unborn babies) and the tenderness of wounds that haven’t healed properly (the remnants of medical procedures little talismen held up to memorialise and prove that pain, the unspent anger against men who fucked her and jeered at her, blurring the boundaries between sex and rape).
Her recent works – paintings, sculptures, large embroidered versions of her drawings – are subtler and less overt. The sculptures are less personal-historical than most of her previous work, more surprising. There’s a lot of wood, plank-like or wheel-like shapes, echoing the seaside jetties of her early years but it's also a homelike, tactile material. Like most of her other work, it's dramatic but not alienating.
The overall impression is one of huge energy and talent, a remarkably versatile aesthetic sense coupled with commercial savvy, and an awesome, distinctive voice: mocking, self-mocking, slurring, sarcastic. And also a sense that all of this work hangs together, that it is the life's work (so far) of a consistent and strongminded artist, less subject to whims and fashion than you might have thought, all clearly part of a coherent whole.
As for a poster image, I know what I’d have chosen: ‘I’ve Got It All’ (2000), a photograph of Emin sitting on the floor of an almost-bare room wearing a Vivienne Westwood top, naked from the waist down, slender legs spread wide apart, head down, looking down at her crotch as she gathers handfuls of paper money into her body, coins and notes spilling in profusion across the red-carpeted space between her thighs. It’s colourful, it grabs you, it’s shocking, it’s beautiful, but most of all it’s unmistakably Tracey Emin. And it's ok because you can't see any pubic hair.
Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, SE1 8XX. Wednesday 18 May - Monday 29 August 2011.