Every artist, to a certain extent, gets saddled with one of their works in perpetuity, the pervasiveness of it, good or bad, making its stamp on the world – for better or worse – a titanic monument or something ugly, like the scarred battlefield after a war.
Why we remember certain things in the context of others can perhaps be best answered by Ivan Pavlov, the great Russian physiologist, best known for contributing to the body of knowledge concerning classical conditioning and behaviour modification.
Or we could go for a more simplified approach and attribute it to the connected field that is concerned with the psychology of association. Either way, the outcome is similar: things stick and become hard to shift.
When we’re presented with Tracey Emin, the inevitable image manifests itself in the mind … a messy bed. 14 years after it was first created and 13 years beyond its exhibition at the Tate Gallery – as part of the shortlist of works for 1998’s Turner Prize – My Bed, a seemingly vacant, innocuous and unoriginal work, remains one, if not the, most famous creations to have come from the British artist.
She might have produced other “noisy” works as is befitting her status as one of the much lauded YBAs (Young British Artists), like the vanished Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (destroyed in the 2004 Momart London warehouse fire), but the image of the bed endures.
Regardless, she has, like her YBA counterpart Damien Hirst – possibly the clumsiest banding of relatively disparate artists who shared a degree and a show together in the late eighties – grown to be, if anything, a very visible and prominent artist, confusing, with critics and observers always unsure what to make of her naked abandon in art, itself garbled.
Ten years after the bed was first constructed, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones mentioned, as a prelude, the classicist Nicolas Poussin complaining about the Baroque sensibilities of his contemporary Caravaggio: “He has come to murder art!”
“He meant that Caravaggio’s paintings refused to sublimate the undigested stuff of life, that they did not ennoble it. My own problem with Emin has been similar,” Jones wrote.
“A magician such as Damien Hirst or Joseph Beuys makes everything symbolic. Emin’s readymades, on the other hand, remain flat, unredeemed; she transfigures nothing. But in many ways Emin’s achievement is the same as Caravaggio’s: she rubs our noses in reality, in a way that subverts all our illusions, fantasies, snobberies and repressions, those barriers we put up between us and death.”
With her new show, She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea, her first major solo exhibition at the Margate’s Turner Contemporary, the viewer is once again thrust into Emin’s world of incongruent works, ranging from paintings to sketches to neons and sculptures. It is a very personal show, made all the more special by the fact that the artist was brought up in the popular seaside town.
“I started to write something and research the ideas about love, like does love really exist, is it something we imagine?” said Emin, in an interview with Another Magazine, explaining part of the concept of the exhibition.
“And the times in life when we’ve thought we’re really in love and often then when we’ve realised that we were most definitely wasn’t, you go ‘Oh that was a lucky escape’ and we somehow delude ourselves about what love is.”
Gone is the exuberance of youth, the need to be polemical, to live up to some half-concocted public persona and the cliche of youthful brazenness and disrespect for authority, and in its place, in this homecoming of sorts, is a more reflective show, pondering, an artistic meditation on what one has learnt over the years. The conclusion being, well, we keep making mistakes.
Heartbreak becomes the theme of our lives, a regular occurrence as time passes, made so through failed relationships, the death of friends, all of which serve to remind us, as Hunter S. Thompson famously observed, that we are born alone and die alone. That’s not to mistake this as an absolute tragic truth, for, as Emin’s work points out, being alone is not just synonymous with loneliness; solitude is a beautiful and very natural state to be in. And anyway, memories, of people, good times, sunsets and banal things, they endure. They make you smile.
“What’s different is the atmosphere. Gone is the anger. Gone is the man-bashing. In their place, an air of wistful nostalgia seems to have seeped into her art,” wrote the Sunday Times’ Waldemar Januszczak. “Where previously it was Margate’s darknesses and cruelty she remembered, here she seems to be reliving the nice bits. The sensuous experience of making love. The good side of having a boyfriend.”
This exhibition is thus emblematic of Emin, still distinctly “her”, and echoes of her past articulated in her artwork, but reasoned, conceptualised through the eyes of a 48-year-old-woman, who has become “a somebody”, even if all she ever wanted – realised in hindsight – was enduring, forever after love.
“I want love,” she told the Guardian at the back end of last month. “I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again.”
There’s that bed again, but after you’ve seen the show, you’re not thinking of it anymore, that famous messy bed. It doesn’t matter. Instead, you’re caught up in your own memories, priceless and yours.
She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea runs until September 23rd.