It’s difficult in this scenario to know how to assess Tracey Emin’s work. Nothing to do with how it’s presented, which is the best it’s ever been – her neon phrases lighting up a darkened corridor with their brilliant, sugary colours; her objects and mementos all pristinely mounted on minimalist plinths and Perspex boxes. Rather, the problem is to do with determining what the actual parameters of the show are. Outside the main exhibition galleries, the ticket area is wallpapered with photocopies of the weekly column she used to write for The Independent. And then there’s the general media hype and publicity, and all the interviews she’s done over the years, with their constant drip-feed of personal revelation. All of which means that by the time you actually get to see, say, her early videos – ‘How It Feels’, about her botched abortion, or ‘Why I Never Became a Dancer’, covering her sexual abuse – the works themselves, which once seemed so startlingly direct, now end up seeming oddly superfluous, almost perfunctory.
Such are the perils of Emin’s relentless urge towards autobiography. Seeing all her work together like this, the whole thing feels vaguely monomaniacal – the way she seeks to narrativise, and thereby control, every fragmentary aspect of her life. Her traumas and joys, her sexual experiences (though ‘My Bed’ isn’t here, nor ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept with’, which perished in the Saatchi fire), her relationships with friends, parents and even pets, her trips abroad – virtually every collection of keepsakes comes accompanied by a framed, handwritten account, in which Emin explains – sometimes disarmingly, sometimes exhaustingly – her thoughts and experiences. Other display cases, full of YBA-related ephemera – letters, notebooks, photos of ‘The Shop’ which she ran with Sarah Lucas in the mid-’90s – are almost impossible to distinguish from her actual work, because all her work, essentially, is about documenting her life.
In that sense she’s the perfect artist for our reality-TV age – heavy on the emotive confessional honesty, easy on the considered analysis. ‘It’s contradictory,’ she says in ‘How It Feels’, attempting to articulate her reaction to her abortion, ‘but it’s true.’ And that’s really the key to her enormous popularity (I’ve never seen the Hayward so crowded): this sense of describing life in all its truthful, contradictory, emotional messiness – an inchoate sensibility that comes across best in her vibrantly appliquéd blankets, with their dizzying multitude of competing moods and slogans.
Her drawings, in the upstairs galleries, are something else entirely. Tremulous, scribbly, yet also utterly economical. They’re what Emin is absolutely best at – in whatever medium she uses, from the scratchy monoprints to her more dreamlike embroideries. There’s still the rawness, the sexual frankness, but without the endless contextualising and narratives. Even in her animation of a woman masturbating, there’s a sense of Emin’s total immersion in the process of drawing – indulging, as it were, a similarly private, personal pleasure.
The final galleries featuring most of her recent pieces, are the biggest disappointment. Superficially, the work seems more mature – the dazzling colours replaced by stark white neon, the sophisticated-looking sculptural forms appearing vaguely mysterious and mythological. As ever, though, the only mythology she’s really interested in is her own: some twisting wooden shapes are actually steps for her cat; the pyre-like ‘Salem’ suggests her feelings of persecution. As a viewer, it’s hard to feel sympathetic – though for different reasons this time: beneath the patina of sophistication, it simply seems as though she’s running out of things to say.