Tracey Emin’s major solo exhibition at the Turner Contemporary brings her back to the town of her childhood. Joanne Matthews appreciates the setting, but isn’t so sure about the art
On the train to Kent, the garden of England, I pondered what the Turner Contemporary might look like. I couldn’t imagine a large coastal gallery; the only thing that I could compare it to in my head was the Tate St.Ives, with its curved front, looking somewhere between a lighthouse and a seaside hotel.
It transpired that the Turner Contemporary building is beautiful, like a large white cliff jutting out on to the water. Despite this setting, Tracey Emin’s exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea is part of the London 2012 festival and the building is plastered with the London 2012 logo a pink shape called the Shard. The Shard looks superimposed onto the landscape and ruins the look of the building. It disconnects the Turner Contemporary with Margate, coming across as an insensitive marketing tool for the Olympics. Luckily, this will only be on the building for a few months.
It is odd to look at the Turner Contemporary from afar and then at Margate, its main promenade lined with rundown attractions and closed shutters. I only hope that the new gallery and Olympic tourists will help to regenerate the old attractions. The town is welcoming and warm with a mix of cafes and pubs full of locals and new quirky shops run by outsiders. The beach and the bays in Margate are beautiful and I highly recommend a dip on a cold day. The sea was particularly blue when I visited.
Tracey Emin’s exhibition evoked some similar feelings in me to Margate. The three rooms of the exhibition are a mix of striking features, deep blue images – and disappointing, empty sculptures and drawings. The rooms are sparse, pale and vulnerable, but at the same comforting, erotic and homely.
The first piece you are greeted with is a large green neon of a nude female body stretched out, with a frame above her. It looked like the body was buried underneath a sky with the rest of the curves and open legs taking the form of rolling hills. In the first large room, the big blue gouache drawings of nudes, drawn using large sweeping movements, emanate the sea. The curves look like mounds and cliffs. Although delicately drawn, they echo large landscapes heaving with emotion.
The exhibition includes a selection of erotic female nudes on paper by Auguste Rodin and JMW Turner, which are apparently the inspiration for the themes of eroticism in the exhibition. Emin’s nudes were certainly erotic but they were comforting, drawn and sewn by someone who knows the female body. Rodin and Turner’s felt voyeuristic and layered with male sexual desire in comparison to Emin’s gentle images that provide a visceral experience. In particular, the large woven nudes feel like they have been crafted with care and were incredibly moving.
The tapestries in the penultimate room are particularly striking. The naked female bodies looked ingrained into coastal and countryside landscapes and are landscapes themselves. In one of them, the headless pale naked body looked as if it was drifting into a white cliff. These bodies carry the memory of a place. They touched an aspect of how I feel about my own, female, body, weighted with memory of places and (was it a sort of maternity?) a feeling that I can’t quite pinpoint.
The sculptures are largely disappointing. Emin includes a tin bath with a screwed up, dirty union jack flag. This simplistic symbolism was lost: was she criticising the loss of an old Britain? It felt disingenuous; it takes something away from the exhibition rather than adding to it.
In the final room of the exhibition, there are a series of smaller blue gouache works on paper clustered around the room. They are a mix of simple drawings including one with a heart shape and some scribbled short sentences. The writings convey an inability to love or the loss of love and say things such as “I didn’t say I couldn’t love you” and “I said no”. This writing is very literal, something that I found quite unchallenging. The technique used to draw these pieces felt less considered in comparison to the others in the exhibition, with the brushstrokes rather sloppy and lacking in passion.
This final room felt empty, which could have been a curatorial decision. The uncomplicated sentences strip back the heavy images in the rest of the exhibition and carry themes of loss. However, I couldn’t connect to these final works, as I found them disappointing and lacking in feeling. Perhaps the intention is to make the onlooker feel the artist’s numbness.
I saw the retrospective of Emin’s work at Hayward Gallery in London last year and this exhibition was low key in comparison to her earlier charged and vibrant works. Emin seems to have mellowed as she has got older and it feels as if her practice is shifting. I guess she can’t be a rebellious YBA for ever. Emin today is far away from her pieces plastered with colourful imagery about her traumatic and enjoyable sexual experiences, abortion and periods. Two themes that are strong in She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea that were also in the work at the Hayward Gallery is the use of female form as a point of reference and loneliness.
I only enjoyed a third of the work in the exhibition and the rest I could have done without. I would, however, recommend a trip to the Turner Contemporary, for the building and for Margate itself.
Tracey Emin’s exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea runs at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate until 23 September 2012. Admission to the exhibition is free.
Images courtesy of Turner Contemporary