In her 1995 film ‘How it Feels’, which closes this new exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey, a young Tracey Emin looks through the lens of the camera, through the two lenses of her rouge-tinted glasses, directly at the viewer and describes her experience of a botched abortion. She leans in on the phrase, “life without life, death without death”. She’s disarmingly honest. The production value is home-video sketchy. Behind her, London is as London always is, red buses and traffic-hush. You feel curiously comfortable. Which makes it all the more strange that Emin seems to speak quietly from some enormous zone of dark wisdom. With a shrug, she gestures towards impossibly large reservoirs of human pain and endurance.
The spaces in this film - the extended dark before the opening credits, the blanks in audio as the ’90s camcorder cuts between scenes - feel universally huge. They feel like the partially conscious blips of negative realisation that allow living people to nearly comprehend the infinity of the non-living. These beats in the film’s rhythm, and the horrific details of Emin’s deadpan story, seem to pose the question, “In what ways do the never-living differ from the dead?”
As a person, Emin is somehow excoriative and magnetic at once. You’d probably avoid her in the pub, but you’d feel overwhelmed with gratitude if she showed you the very real tenderness of which she’s capable - and in which she has unswerving faith. All of the work in this extensive exhibition performs that double-movement between love and repulsion with great skill and earnestness.
In the 9 x 9 x 9 gallery sits the hunched bronze figure of ‘The Mother’ (2017), kneeling in an attitude of compassion and despair, cradling what the exhibition notes describe as “an absent form” in her hands. Along with the other two huge figures presented here, it’s the biggest sculpture she’s ever done in bronze. Because of their hulking size, the nude figures can’t hide their crevices, their shame. Emin’s always made a home in humiliation. But they seem to find something triumphal eddying around in their lowest ebbs.
As well as considering those souls and forms who never quite passed into our physical world, Emin devotes an entire room of the exhibition to the narrative of passing out of it. The series of paintings, drawings, and a film which track the story of her mother’s death and cremation play with iconographic tropes, ouija-superstition, and retrograde vagina-obsession. All the familiar repressions and expressions through which the human heart tries to process grief. It’s right on the nose, but it’s very powerful art.
The paintings in this exhibition splatter the flesh, blood and mucus palettes of Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly across Egon Schiele’s warped technical accuracy of human anatomy. It’s some of the best painting Emin has done for years and is enough to carry the less potent parts of the exhibition. The neon and the selfies seem to blare some loud but ineloquent kind of intimacy at you, and don’t come near the compositional mastery of the paintings and sculptures.
Emin’s among the best at expressing the painful, all-at-once paradox of sex, birth and death. Existing as it does in all sorts of between-states, the work here is kind of a return to form without the form. It’s life without life. Death without yet needing to die. Here, Emin tells us as eloquently as ever what she seems to have been saying for decades: being human hurts. But, apparently, someone’s gotta do it.