When Tracey Emin made a hard landing on the art scene in the 1990s, she left a contrail few could ignore. She was part of the group known as the Young British Artists, who would spark controversy and become some of the best-known, and best-selling, artists of recent decades. Like those of counterparts such as Damien Hirst, Emin’s works were considered fresh, in-your-face and sometimes overly sensational.
But Emin often stood alone with her raw, personal interpretations, based on her experiences as a late 20th-century woman. Her tent installation with appliquéd names of everyone she ever slept with caused an uproar in 1995. It was followed by My Bed, a nominee for the Turner Prize that was her own disheveled bed surrounded by the detritus of her disintegrating life, including empty alcohol bottles, condoms and dirty underwear.
These seminal pieces from Emin are important to keep in mind when visiting her solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, “Angel Without You.” When you walk into the darkened museum, you are engulfed by 60 neon works and one video, which create an almost womb-like atmosphere. In pink and blue and violet glowing tubing, fragments and phrases leap from the walls: “You saved me”; “It’s not me That’s crying, it’s my Soul”; “Every Part of Me’s Bleeding.” Most of them are transcribed from Emin’s handwriting into the neon replications.
Like all of Emin’s work, this is deeply intimate stuff, centered around the basic concept of storytelling. On one level, these neon pieces — the first time this broad selection from across her career has been shown in the United States in a museum show — seem simple and childlike. They recall graffiti scribbled on a bathroom wall or entries in a yearbook, complete with misspellings, erratic capitalization and crossed-out words. Some of the phrases are rough: One coupling from 1998 asks “Is Anal Sex Legal?” “Is Legal Sex Anal?” Some are more wrenching, such as the 2011 “I Followed you into the Water Knowing I would Never Return.” Others are humorous in their girlish sentiment, like the 2006 “My Heart is With You and I love you Always Always Always;” or the green words encased by a pink heart that read “You Loved me Like a distant Star.”
Emin has worked with neon throughout her career. And once again the relationship with the medium is personal. She grew up in the English seaside town of Margate, a tourist destination with hotels and restaurants advertising their wares in neon. Emin decided she would advertise her own product in neon as well, putting up in lights feelings of desire and heartbreak. In an interview with MOCA, she described her interest in the material: “Many of my neons are love poems, but not being sent to one individual but to many. Other neons appear to be full of anger, but actually it is humour; some things just shouldn’t be seen in neon.”
Some things in Emin’s works do indeed seem inappropriate, or too intimate, for public consumption, which explains why her art has been so compelling through the years. Some of the language is too vulgar for print; do we really need to see it? Emin’s answer always has been, yes. She doesn’t cover up the emotional turmoil of human relations, particularly those experienced by girls and women (and especially girls transitioning to women).
Of course, neon also has an intimate relationship with Miami, as Emin and MOCA knew when setting up this exhibition. The choice by ex-director Bonnie Clearwater, who arranged the exhibit before her departure, to focus on light works was deliberate. The new 2013 blue Angel Without You, after which the show is titled, is a centerpiece in the courtyard.
Neon has a close tie to the history of contemporary art as well, as Emin acknowledges with several pieces at the front of the museum from artists she credits as influences — such as neon-pioneers Bruce Nauman and Dan Flavin. She also includes here a pink fabric bust from Louise Bourgeois, whom Emin considers one of the leading female artists of our time.
The only other non-neon piece of work here is the 1995 video Why I Never Became a Dancer, which MOCA acquired early in Emin’s career, becoming one of the first American museums to collect her work. Don’t miss this film, as it truly augments the rest of the exhibit. Emin describes a teenage Emin meandering her way through the beachfront fun of Margate, progressing to painful too-young sexual escapades, her infatuation with disco dancing and finally her disillusionment with it all. Her art would emanate from this time.
There will be detractors to “Angel Without You.” It can feel like a one-note show, with the neon scribblings becoming repetitive, and not a lot of background to who she is or why Emin has arrived at the place in the art world she now holds. The artwork displayed here doesn’t offer a complete version of the artist’s trajectory. After her somewhat sensationalist beginnings (her infamous tent installation would be burned in a now-legendary fire in London), she represented the United Kingdom at the 2007 Venice Biennale. She now is a featured artist in two trans-Atlantic powerhouse galleries, White Cube in London and Lehmann Maupin in New York.
But this isn’t a retrospective of her career. In the darkened confines of the space, surrounded by snippets of phrases chosen specifically to be delivered to a public in a private fashion, the exhibit can feel like an intimate postcard, filled with glaring ambiguity and confusion from an artist who has always tried to reveal those inner conflicted workings.