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Tracey Emin: from the inside out
Financial Times

You see the woman first; she is leaning back, naked, legs parted. Then you notice she is resting against another body, a man. She has only the outline of a form but the man is more solid, filled in with fleshy pink acrylic. You don’t see the erect penis at first — but there it is, enclosed in the woman’s hand.


Works like “Sunday morning” (2015) are the reason Tracey Emin’s new show in Hong Kong carries a warning of explicit content. Divided between White Cube and Lehmann Maupin galleries, it is her first solo exhibition in greater China and it opens this week to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong, when the international art world is in town.


But explicit is the wrong word for Emin. She came to fame as a brash, mouthy artist intent on making her (sex) life the subject of her art — most memorably in “My Bed” (1998). The recent work on show here is autobiographical yet slippery and elusive. You have to look for a while before you see.


The first room at White Cube encapsulates Emin’s themes of love and loss in a neat arc of five pieces. “Sunday morning” and its partner, “Spending time with you” (2015), are tender depictions of love and sex — the timeless fug of a lost weekend, perhaps. But the mood shifts with “All I want is You” (2015), its single female nude struggling to emerge from a tangle of blue-black lines. Her face is not blank, as in other renderings, but blotted out with angry brushstrokes. What emerges is a sense of the messy entwining of lives, and the wrench of parting. Next comes “Hurt Heart” (2015), a small pink square with the word “HURT” crossed out, and “HEART” beneath it. Is the crossing out a sign of healing? Finally, there is the titular white neon “I Cried Because I Love You” (2016). As in Emin’s previous neons — “You Forgot to Kiss my Soul” (2001) or “I Never Stopped Loving You” (2010), for example — the act of committing words to sculpture suggests a finality, the sense of having reached self-knowledge.
These themes — togetherness and loneliness, memory and self-scrutiny — are repeated through the rest of the White Cube show, and at Lehmann Maupin, in a series of nudes of ambiguous figuration. “I tried to hold your soul” (2015) depicts a spidery tangle of bodies — a dark crotch; limbs fanning out — against dripping layers of green and yellow. In “Reinforcing” (2016) the body falls into place around the one clear element: a breast and nipple, defined in a single looping line. But your eye has to work hard to make sense of the whole. “Aware of you” (2010) depicts a reclining woman from above. Crisp, confident lines describe her legs and genitalia, recalling Schiele or even Picasso, but her foreshortened torso disappears into a pool of dark blue paint, like a looming shadow.


Large textile nudes hang alongside the paintings, and they have the same sense of an image not quite fixed. Emin uses large stitches to draw as though with an oversized pencil, and swatches of material to create block shadows. In both the embroideries and paintings, sketchy nudes struggle to emerge from these shadows, their heads often concealed, rendering them universal despite being self-portraits.


That they are self-portraits is important not because they can be read as autobiography but because they are an attempt to reclaim the female nude. Emin’s poses and cropping (her figures are often headless) reference Courbet’s explicit “L’Origine du monde” of 1866, his composition starkly foregrounding the vagina, but without that picture’s finish or detachment. In Emin’s “More Dreaming”, the figure assumes a pose — on her back, legs splayed — that would be objectifying in a portrait, say, by Lucian Freud. But these are intimate, personal studies made from the inside looking out.


Though most of the works here have not been seen before, they feel familiar. Emin’s nudes are meditations on a theme, restlessly working through feelings and memories. Poses recur and titles begin to sound the same. There is, then, no real progression between the two parts of the exhibition — and arguably no reason to visit both galleries. White Cube has more works, and they are more spaciously displayed; uniting the two, “I Cried Because I Love You” exists in both white neon (White Cube) and yellow (Lehmann Maupin), but is awkwardly installed above a doorway at the latter venue.


Emin’s first monographic show in China is a focused look at one aspect of her current practice, rather than a comprehensive survey. But it is a welcome opportunity for first-timers to see these moving documents in the flesh. By turns tender and melancholic, they achieve an atmospheric precision despite — or maybe because of — their anatomical ambiguity.