Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want, Hayward Gallery, London

Emin's life work shows just why she's the queen of Britart, if not of grammar. But is it too brilliant?
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The Independent Culture

To say that Tracey Emin's art is inarticulate is not to insult it. Rather the opposite.

Much of the point of Emin's work is in its hurried prolixity, its urgent rush of words: words stitched on blankets, scrawled in Biro, mono-printed, appliquéd, embroidered on the walls of tents, spun out in neon tubes. We're talking quantity here rather than quality, and intentionally so.

The apparently unedited nature of Emin's prose suggests a certain rawness, the gush of an open (and often wise) wound. If she stopped to, say, spell properly, then we would feel that she was being less raw. And so we get "their" spelt "there", an "e" on the end of "betray", a breathless disregard for apostrophes. Occasionally, this becomes annoying, like listening to the Yale-educated George W Bush talking as though he had been raised by coyotes. Come on, Tracey, you want to say: you know that "weak" isn't spelled w-e-e-k. But here is an artist who magicked, djinn-like, a cheap bed into the Saatchi Gallery, whose strength of damaged will turns notes about her gran, snapshots of her uncle, condoms, blue, remembered jetties and snatches of sexual abuse into works of art. You can't do that and sound like you went to Girton.

Phew. Sorry about all this, but there's something about Emin's art that provokes critical torrents. No doubt, also, curatorial ones. Emin is currently the subject of a full-scale monographic retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, not quite three years after her all-embracing one-woman show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. There were days when Sarah Lucas seemed a possible contender for the title of Britart Queen, but Tracey now reigns supreme, her progress around Britain's cultural capitals stately and unchallenged. As with any reigning monarch, state visits bring problems.

The biggest one for any curator must be how to handle all that inarticulacy. If you tidied up Emin's work – suggested she download spell check before getting out her darning needle, say – she would, quite rightly, pull back and slug you. An edited Emin would be no Emin at all. Her own grammar, her own syntax, is the making of art, the preserving of ephemera in small vitrines, the translating of beds into galleries. And yet a 20-year retrospective is necessarily edited, even when it is as large as the one at the Hayward.

I don't know how many works she has made since 1991 – does anyone? – but they must number in the thousands. Whittling them down to a mere 220 or so can't help but leave you with a specific Emin. The question is, which one?

In the case of the Hayward's show, Love Is What You Want, the answer is surprisingly articulate, or at least orderly. The hang is very broadly chronological, although the 20-year timeline is broken down into genres and themes. There is a whole wall of appliquéd blankets, another of neon signs, a section of cowboy videos. As with all of Emin's art, the signs advertise things that are usually left unadvertised. Those who Suffer LOVE, says one, the artist's trademark lack of punctuation leaving us to read the slogan in one of two ways; Is Anal less Legal? Is Legal less Anal? asks another.

The show winds its way upstairs and ends, more or less, at a recent DVD projection of a woman masturbating on an endlessly repeated, 20-second loop. The drawing is scratchy, Klimt-ish, the projection jerky and sped-up. At first, it is slightly funny and faintly embarrassing, although as the woman frigs on, it becomes by turns frantic and then painful. The work, as the show, is called Love Is What You Want. A neon sign piece has the same title.

What we're left with is a sense of completeness, of Emin's work having passed through various stages and media to get to precisely this moment. Masturbation isn't the only thing to turn up in various guises and materials in her art. May Dodge, Emin's dead grandmother, appears first in 1993 in a vitrined wall piece – "For you – there waiting x x x" says a piece of paper torn from an exercise book – and reappears, appliquéd, a decade later on a blanket: MAY DODGE NANNY MY ANGEL WAITS. Cuss words, titles, cut felt, Union Flags, mawkish sentimentality, abuse, a confusion of sexual and emotional love: all these weave their way through Emin's oeuvre like threads. It is tight, cohesive, brilliantly done.

Or is it? I can't help feeling that Love Is What You Want is almost too brilliant a piece of curation, that its skill and neatness may be more than Emin deserves. Or less. The Hayward's show certainly suggests a different Emin from the one we're used to, cleverer, more studied, but also less raw. Whether that change will be good for her in the long run, I cannot really say.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent dreams of spires in Constable and Salisbury at the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum

Art Choice

Two new exhibitions have opened in London featuring the work of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Come face-to-face with his 12 enormous bronze cast animal heads at Somerset House (until 26 Jun), and visit the Lisson Gallery for a solo exhibition of more wide-ranging works, from marble sculptures to video pieces (until 16 Jul).