Tracey Emin: The Last Great Adventure is You

Tracey Emin’s solo exhibition The Last Great Adventure is You held at White Cube in late 2014 was the artist’s first show at the commercial gallery for five years. As is the nature of such exhibitions, 50 new works, mainly small in scale, gave an overview of the artist’s recent preoccupations. While the show presented Emin’s engagement with new materials, her established themes – the female body, love and desire – remained consistent. A series of blue gouaches on paper, a number of paintings, and some large-scale embroideries deftly conveyed fleshy female bodies, emphasising rounded breasts, large hips and thighs. Over the past few years Emin has returned to life-drawing and the discipline of repeatedly analysing the human form has culminated in works that are personal and engaging, without the confrontational, hard-edged sensibility found in some of her earlier iterations. Her skill of conveying both physicality and emotional fragility through a few lines is impressive.

For readers of this publication however, Emin’s show was notable for the number of bronze sculptures on display. Emin has a remarkable track-record for work in three dimensions, from the embroidered tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995), and the infamous My Bed (1998), to the helter-skelter installation of a partially-collapsed pier, Knowing My Enemy(2002). But while these works pushed the boundaries of what constituted sculpture, in terms of materials, subject matter and composition, the bronze editions on display at White Cube were intriguing for their conservativism: behold, Emin has grown up and is making ‘proper’ art. Emin spend three years working with the Modern Art Foundry in Astoria, New York, learning the lost-wax method of bronze casting; an experience she described as akin to going back to art school. 

2. Tracey Emin, Wanting, 2014, bronze 9.5 × 15.5 × 19 cms.,
© Tracey Emin
 (photo: Ben Westoby, courtesy of White Cube)

Developed from drawings, the results on show are a set of small-scale sculptures presenting bodily fragments that seemingly reference the work of any number of early twentieth-century modernists. In a video accompanying the exhibition Emin expressed her pleasure that the expressionistic female figures might recall the work of Auguste Rodin, but the sculptural precedent that most readily sprang to mind was that of Henry Moore. Perhaps because of the subject matter, or maybe because of their domestic scale, Emin’s fragmented female figures echoed Moore’s maquettes of reclining women and falling warriors. The connection to Moore’s ‘wide, broad, mature’ women though most-likely unintentional, was reiterated by Emin’s own observation to interviewer, Rachel Cooke of The Guardian that ‘I’ve gone from being a really thin girl – even when I was 40, I was thin – to becoming matronly and womanly. I’m trying to come to terms with the physical changes.’ Works such as Wanting (2014) and I want you because I can’t have you (2014) each present a lumpen supine figure, positioned on its back, with abbreviated or missing limbs. Most have been beautifully patinated, some deep chocolate brown, others almost black with golden highlights, emphasising the tactile nature of the forms.

After years of employing studio assistants, Emin evidently enjoyed the process of modelling in clay, pressing and squeezing the material, which was then cast. Indeed, she was at pains to stress that she was truly involved in the making of her work, as though the evidence of her touch (her fingerprints have been captured in the bronzes) legitimises her artistic endeavour. Emin’s figurative sculptures are generally successful in conveying an emotional core and point to interesting avenues for future work; Crying for you (2014) presents a figure lying face down on a brick-like base; a head is turned away from an outstretched right arm, and one of the legs is suspended above the base, as though about to kick down in grief and frustration. However, despite titles that suggest intimacy, some, particularly the two larger sculptures Without conscience (2014) and Every part of me feels you (2014) seemed devoid of emotional depth. Like many of Moore’s later bronzes, these works are best described as formal studies of the body, of the relationship between torso and limbs, the interplay between flesh and bone, rather than reflexive expressions of emotion or feeling. If she decides to work in this larger size and scale she will have to be careful that the tender intimacies don’t get lost in the enlargement. 

And finally, it is curious that an artist so intent on the seriousness of her project, seeking to reposition the female nude as a relevant subject for female artists in the twenty-first century, Emin also teeters on the edge of kitsch. Her twee sculptures featuring animals, The Lamb (2014) and Lion Love (2014) recall the artist’s earlier illustrations of her cat, Docket; Emin may well love these animals, but in sculptural form they come dangerously close to cloying sentimentality. 

Main image: Installation view, Tracey Emin: The Last Great Adventure is You
White Cube Bermondsey, London,© Tracey Emin 
(photo: Patrick Dandy, courtesy of White Cube).

Tracey Emin: The Last Great Adventure is You
8 October – 16 November 2014
White Cube, Bermondsey, London

Aurora Corio