At that age, I had only the vaguest understanding of adult life, and sex remained an abstract notion, gleaned almost entirely from the bratty, pornographic lexicon of Blink-182 and American Pie. Emin’s work changed all that. In My Bed, I saw a visceral articulation of what I later learned was known as “depression,” a picture of total emotional paralysis as immediate as any in modern art. But the films were what really worked on me. Suddenly, sex seemed much more than a gross-out joke, something that could leave suppurating open wounds on the psyche: after all, Emin had only been a few years older than my 10-year-old self when she had her first abortion. Nobody I knew, and no film, song, or book, had ever alerted me to the existence of the subjects Emin discussed in her work, and the genius of it was that she narrated it all in visuals and language that even the most incurious of pre-teens could understand.
Most shocking of all, however, was the corresponding feeling that I had lost my innocence. Sitting through the hour-long video reel in the show, I suddenly became aware that I was intruding on something so deeply personal that I shouldn’t be watching. Not that I would have known it as such then, but for weeks after visiting, I was wracked with the weird guilt of the voyeur, and a sense that I had crossed a set of tracks into sordid and unmistakably grown-up territory. We all have warped memories of childhood, but I will never forget the horrible realization that from this point on, there was no going back. It was not the most intelligent art exhibition I’ve seen, let alone the best, yet nothing has ever had such a pronounced, disquieting impact on me. Though it features a return to video work, I doubt her new show at White Cube will leave a comparable impression. But regardless of what she produces, however safe or self-parodic her works become, I could never bring myself to get bored of Tracey Emin.