Cover image: Tracey Emin, No Love (2018).
A prior fan of Tracey Emin’s work, advocate of My Bed (1998), and startling neon vignettes, I thought I was prepared for the show that everyone is talking about. I was not. No exhibition has ever impacted me as immensely as A Fortnight of Tears at White Cube. Upon entering the vast, almost clinical corridors of the gallery; the buzz of Bermondsey street, hipster coffee machines and dogs in pushchairs slipped away, replaced by an atmosphere of inner contemplation and the promise of something important.
The first room you come across is the South Gallery, where wall to wall you are met with self portraits of the artist, taken in various moments of insomnia. The collection shows a diverse range of emotions on Emin’s face. There is a pout, grief, exhaustion. A low angled selfie with her black cat and the universal expressions of emotions that we have all felt in the dark quiet of night. Being surrounded on all four sides by these huge, intimate and unspoken moments is overwhelming. It’s feels like walking into an alternative Instagram feed, where instead of the posed pictures and impersonal captions that make up the highlight reel we scroll through daily, you find yourself picking your way through the memories of the hardest nights you’ve had, but been too afraid to share.
In the South Gallery II, an older gentleman, locks eye with me. His words aren’t required to express his feelings, the glistening empathy behind his wrinkled pupils are enough to communicate between us the pain we are feeling. Both our own and the artists. The line between the two becomes blurred as you encounter more and more of the work. Her pain becomes yours, and yours adds further depth into to the art you are consuming. He tells me that he’s found the exhibition remarkable. We converse excitedly, bouncing ideas and feelings that have been provoked. Eventually we conclude that the effect it’s had on us is not only due Emin’s ability to effortlessly communicate the inner pain that we all experience, both through words and visuals, but her bravery in, and commitment to doing such. He tells me to write that line down. The artist has no responsibility to be so vulnerable with the world, but by doing so, she has provided at least me and one other gentleman with a way to channel our pain, for which we are grateful for. She has also encouraged a gentle interaction between two individuals that would not have happened otherwise. As the gentleman and I clutch hands in a goodbye, we are aware of both the extraordinariness in our meeting, and also its innocent simplicity. It is comforting.
The film discussing the artists experience of abortion, How it Feels (1996), makes for gut wrenching viewing. We are trusted with the details of a significant and traumatic episode in her life, yet Emin’s vulnerability does not come across as weakness. She reminds us that we can be emotional, suffering and yet strong. As a young woman who has had infertility anxiety and pregnancy scares, Emin’s personal confessions (because that’s what they are) on the topics are shocking. Not for being controversial, although I’m sure to some they will be, but because it’s as if she’s reached into the historic files of my brain that have found these harsh events too difficult to formulate into words, and structured them into coherent thought. As I watch her mouth move, I feel like I could be watching myself. The pain that she is expressing so calmly, whilst also acknowledging the power it has over her, is my pain. It shakes me to my core. The film finishes after 22 minutes, and there is silence as people gather their belongings. Tears are being brushed aside, and arms are being touched comfortingly. Respect lingers.
In the final room, dedicated to Emin’s experience of the bereavement of her mother, I’m crouched at the corner or a canvas, attempting to read Emin’s scrawled message, when a child appears. The bottom of his trousers are dusty from crawling on the floor, and his shock of blond hair a stark contrast against the black trousers of the fellow gallery goers. He is only knee height after all. His smiling face and clambering against the walls, wincingly close to the paintings, restarted the tears that had been stoically stemmed after the cinema section of the exhibition. Emin’s words on her struggles with the idea of motherhood ring in my ear. I engage the boy in conversation, and ask if he’s enjoyed the show. He laughs and runs shyly between his father’s legs who answers on his behalf. He has. I smile.
I leave the gallery and the gift shop unusually empty handed, but what I have gained from this show is not physical. I have been moved to tears, given the opportunity to interact with strangers, and enjoyed the beauty that can arise from acknowledging and sharing one’s vulnerabilities. I leave with an encouraging sense of thankfulness, to the artist and to the gallery.
Galleries to me remain one of the safest places imaginable. Not for their lack of challenging ideas or political correctness, but because it is space that urges debate and discussion that we tend to avoid in the outside world. Would you connect with a stranger on the tube over the harshness of rush hour, or in the queue at Pret? Art and gallery spaces, if you will allow them to, open you up to a world of ideas, people and experiences that we should be embracing more often. Emin it seems shares the same view as from the 1990’s, following her experience of trauma, realised that any art she created had to be an extension of her own experiences. She did not want to plague the world with more pretty pictures. Instead, she wants to share a creative reality that has consequently sparked a bubble of empathy in South London, and wherever else her work is exhibited. By opening herself up to the world, she is encouraging us to explore her pain and our own, allowing that bubble of empathy to spread as people share their reactions and stories. I am sure only positivity can arise as a result.
Thank you Tracey.
Tracey Emin, A Fortnight of Tears
6 Feb – 7 April 2019
White Cube Bermondsey
Find details of the exhibition here.