Tracey Emin’s work is often said to be inseparable from her (often disturbing) autobiography, ever the double edged sword for an artist. Uncompromising pieces like “My Bed” and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995″ have won Emin a devoted following, but also accusations of narcissism and sentimentality that take on new life with each showing of her work. With Emin’s retrospective currently at the Heyward Gallery next door, it was author Ali Smith’s turn to take up her cause at Queen Elizabeth Hall Thursday night. Fortunately, Smith was keen to turn the conversation in a different direction.
Smith sees language as the prime mover in Emin’s work. Reading from an essay specially commissioned to accompany the Heyward show, she noted what she believed were the artist’s overlooked strengths: her interest in narrative, her “fluidity and changeability of register” and not least – her warmth and humour. Emin’s neons (see top of this post) were singled out for praise, with Smith likening their wordplay to the work of Gertrude Stein.
In another segment Smith traded brief extracts with host and fellow author Rachel Holmes; Smith read from writers she sees as sharing Emin’s themes, Holmes from Emin’s collection of writing, Strangeland. The autobiographical Strangeland – which, judging from the snippets heard here, is strange indeed – felt like an argument directed at those who still think of Emin as an artist with a limited vocabulary. Smith then expanded the argument by juxtaposing these personal sketches with passages from DH Lawrence (a fellow transgressor, per Smith) and Rumi to place Emin’s work in a wider literary context.
Is this evidence enough to rehabilitate Emin? It’s probably a bit like her art – convincing to those who are already convinced. But for those few who came with no preconceptions, it must have been an eye-opening evening.
Before launching into her essay Smith had warned the crowd that she would read it fast, and it wasn’t an idle threat – the words tumbled out at breathtaking pace. At certain points they seemed to almost fuse together into long riffs, more hip-hop than lecture. And while time constraints surely played a part, I suspect Smith also found this opportunity to play with language in real time irresistible. Another reminder that the ability to “re-see” words she finds so abundant in Emin’s work is equally plentiful in her own.