Tracey Emin Pushes Her Art Forward through a Marriage to a Stone
Last summer, Tracey Emin arranged a marriage ceremony at her studio in southern France, in which she wedded a stone. This month, the artist’s two-part show in Hong Kong, “I Cried Because I Love You,” spread over Lehmann Maupin’s and White Cube’s galleries, is an insight into this peculiar relationship.
If I’d been blind-folded during the press meet-and-greet for the exhibition, I would have guessed that whoever was speaking was doing a rather poor imitation of the Margate-raised artist. The Emin that spoke that morning was docile and content—far from the sharp tongue and fierce confessional force that dominates the public imagination of her.
That imagination began of course, as Emin rose to prominence as a key player among the provocative Young British Artists. A tent embroidered with the names of everyone she went to bed with cemented the young artist’s foothold in contemporary art in 1995, and she hit a fever pitch with her 1998 work My Bed, the aftermath of a dismaying breakup strewn with soiled sheets, bottles of alcohol, and used condoms.
Now, despite the context of the selfie age, where the face and body of every Tom or Mary are splashed all over social media, Emin’s self portraits—which range from now-iconic neon signage to sensuous nudes spanning sculpture, painting, and embroidery—still stand out for their honesty. Rather than attempting to create a heavily edited, immaculate new narrative, the artist is constantly reaching inwards to grasp at something more human.
At Lehmann Maupin, the menacing message of “you will always love me” in Another love story (2011–2015) is in a stark contrast to the Wanting to be with you (2015), in which the demure message is scrawled beneath an image of a female figure gazing at an enormous rock (Lehmann Maupin will also open a new show of Emin’s work in New York on May 5). At the White Cube show, desperation, encapsulated by All I want is You (2015) is offset by the joyous abandon and self-content in works like Straight up (2014).
Emin might be better known for her neons and paintings, but here, one can’t help but be drawn to the delicate contours of her embroidery. Even if the poses are less-than-modest, they are far from boorish, thanks to the light-hearted, carefree nature of their finely worked threads.
It also goes without saying that for Emin, art and text are intertwined, or indeed, the latter is the former. Parallels can be easily drawn to Cy Twombly, yet unlike the late American artist, Emin’s scrawls are less enigmatic, and more universal in their singular vision to find fulfilling love and sex.
The question remains: Has Tracey Emin finally found inner peace through wedding a stone?
There is a clear feminist reading of the act: By marrying a stone, a metaphor for permanence, Emin has enacted a cry for all women to be content with being by themselves. Semantics also comes into play in interpreting the title; Emin emphasizes that she is crying because she still has the ability to love. Yet, as tender and content as the artist appears, one can’t help but sense an undercurrent of loneliness that accompanies the optimism. In Dreamt of you (2016), for example, the splatter of red conjures, in equal measure, love and lust, as well as anger and spite; in Hurt heart (2015), the word “heart” scrawled beneath a crossed-out “hurt,” is similarly ambiguous.
Might it be age, and the sense of insecurity that comes along with it, that led the artist to wed the stone? As opposed to being an external object, or a significant other, the stone is a projection of Emin’s belief in what love should be—“majestic, beautiful, and not going anywhere,” she says of her beloved. Emin’s narrative has always been deeply personal, and inevitably one-sided, and thus the stone is an ideal suitor; “I Cried Because I Love You” speaks only of what she needs and yearns to do.
So was the wedding a feminist cry or a gesture of loneliness? It could be both, or neither—the beauty of it all lies perhaps not in the answer, but in the compulsion to ask that question. “I Cried Because I Love You” is a portrait of a woman who is still trying to come to terms with her many desires, which are, more often than not, contrary to one another. For the sake of her art (and perhaps our viewing pleasure), we can only hope that with age, Emin will only continue to share with us the many struggles that are at the center of her powerful identity.
“I Cried Because I Love You” is on view at White Cube and Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong, Mar. 22–May 21, 2016.