Tracey Emin’s Last Hurrah? And Other Stuff – Edward Lucie-Smith




Just as the new lockdown was being announced, the Sunday Times (UK) was unusually full of stuff about contemporary art. The main colour supplement led with a piece about Tracey Emin, with a cover image of the artist. This had obviously been commissioned as publicity for the exhibition due to open in mid-November at the RA galleries, with Emin as curator, in which her work would be combined with that of her hero, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Instead, it turned out to be a graphic account of her struggle with life-threatening bladder-cancer, and of the major operation, she has had to undergo. Her prognosis, following this, is not good.

Emin is not a major admiration of mine – ELS

There’s no doubt that she is a genuinely creative artist, but she tends to have a higher opinion of her status than I do. There can, however, be no doubt of her enormous success. She is one of the last survivors of the much-publicised British YBA Movement of the 1990s. She has always been good at catching the eye of the press, from that early moment when she tottered out, apparently drunk, from a live tv interview. She is now a Royal Academician, financially successful, internationally known, a heroine of the movement to give female artists a deserved significant role in contemporary art. In the Sunday Times interview, she was brutally frank about the situation in which she now finds of herself and devoid of self-pity. She seemed to think of the upcoming show, shared with Munch, as a last hurrah, and was content should that prove to be the case. I admired both her courage and her realism.

The problem is, of course, that with the new lockdown, announced – as it seemed rather clearly – sometime after the interview with Emin went to press, the exhibition may either not happen at all, or maybe, if it does happen, a posthumous event: a double memorial, taking place in a vastly changed artistic world.

Last Sunday the additional Sunday Culture Supp, in which, for obvious reasons, visual arts coverage has recently tended to be rather sparse, had not one but two articles about art. One was by their regular art critic, Waldemar Januszczak – a review of the just-opened Arctic Culture and Climate show at the British Museum. This is due to run until February 21 next year. As the headline to the piece – Buried in the White Stuff – suggested, Waldy was not enthusiastic. He described the exhibition as: ‘A piece of anthropological propaganda, aimed at western society, whose aim is to chastise is for the global warming that is melting the polar ice-caps.’ If it does, by any chance, reopen after Christmas and New Year, I doubt if I’ll be in much of a rush to go and see it.

The Colour Supp cover-story was not this, but a piece by Anthony Gormley and Martin Gayford. Boastfully entitled Our Top Ten Sculptures, it turned out to be a puff for a new book by the two of them, published by Thames & Hudson and entitled Shaping the World.

On the evidence offered, it depends what you mean by ‘shaping’. The top pick, and by far the biggest illustration on the spread, was a piece by the contemporary British artist Cornelia Parker (b. 1956), entitled Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. The caption tells one: ‘The artist arranged for an ordinary wooden shed to be blown up, then she carefully re-assembled it at the moment of disintegration.’ Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at Tate Modern (2003) comes second and Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta third, followed by Tony Cragg’s New Stones, Newton’s Tones (1982), described as ‘a deft re-association of bits of plastic gathered from the shores of the Rhine.’

Both chronologically and geographically the spread is wide but not absolutely all-inclusive. At the bottom of the list of ten there was a dinky Paleolithic Venus made from a mammoth’s tusk, then an enormous stone reclining Buddha from Sri Lanka, dating from the 11th to 12th centuries a.d. African tribal sculpture didn’t get a look in.

One couldn’t, nevertheless, find a more telling example than this list of ten of the perils of the desire to be both politically correct and at the same time all-inclusive. Nor of the accompanying overweening wish to make sure that the pygmies of the present occupy pedestals at the same height as those of the giants of the past.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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