Artists Interview Fairs USA

Neon sculptures reveal Emin's spiritual side

The artist's first solo show in a US museum is long overdue

Tracey Emin, You Loved Me Like a Distant Star, 2012. Photo: courtesy Lehmann Maupin

A s well as the neon signs, which remind Tracey Emin of her hometown of Margate, the artist loves Miami for its sunset. “The sun goes down in the sea really close to the point, just like in Margate. Turner [who painted Margate’s skies] would have loved it,” she says. Emin’s first solo show in a US museum, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami on Wednesday (until 9 March 2014), is a celebration of another kind of light, featuring 67 of her neon sculptures.

The show is called “Angel Without You”, a title she describes as “typical Tracey”—an open-ended phrase she hopes people will relate to. For Emin it means many things. “It’s like saying that you miss someone, that you’ll carry on without them. It’s also saying to someone that they are very special, more special than a human, and their presence within you is important,” she says.

The spiritual aspect of Emin’s work is not always immediately discernable, particularly in her more explicit pieces that reference bad sex or bodily fluids, but the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi has had a significant influence on Emin and her work. Rumi, whose poems were inspired by the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism, believed that music, poetry and dance were a way of transcending the physical to unite with God.

In the final sequences of Emin’s first video, Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, which was acquired by the museum in 1998 and is on show in the exhibition, the artist spins around to the Sylvester track, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, while in a voiceover Emin lists the men who took advantage of her sexually as a teenager. Bonnie Clearwater, the museum’s former director and chief curator, who is organising the show, observes that Emin is transported beyond Margate’s beaches and back alleys by the power of dance, just like a Sufi whirling dervish.

There are other signs of the spiritual in Emin’s work, particularly in her neons. The word “soul” appears in several neon sculptures, including You Forgot to Kiss My Soul, 2001, and It’s Not Me That’s Crying It’s My Soul, 2011, while the light they emit has an almost celestial quality. In 2008 she created a pink neon work for Liverpool Cathedral, which reads: “I felt you and I knew you loved me”. For Emin love is not just about human and sexual relationships, it can also be divine.

Sacred, and sometimes also irreverent, Emin’s neons, which she started to make in 1995, have been a feature at art fairs since the late 1990s. Shortly after Emin showed a group together in a solo show at Modern Art Oxford in 1998, the artist’s London gallery, White Cube, began to sell her neon sculptures at fairs. White Cube (L9) is showing one at Art Basel Miami Beach: The Last Great Adventure is You, 2013, is priced at £65,000.

Despite their commercial popularity (the auction record for an Emin neon is £137,000), Graham Steele, the director of White Cube Asia, says it can take Emin up to three years to create one. “As a dealer you wish she would just come up with these beautiful phrases every week. But she often ruminates on them, each one is like a poem,” he says, although sometimes the process is more immediate and “certain phrases just pop into her head”.

Unusually for an artist, Emin is a regular on the fair circuit. She was a latecomer to Miami, only visiting for the first time in 2011. But it was virtually love at first sight—a year Emin later bought a flat on Collins Avenue. “I love art fairs,” Emin says enthusiastically. “It’s embarrassing because artists aren’t supposed to like art fairs, but I absolutely embrace them.”

Emin describes herself as “pro-active” when it comes to fairs. For Frieze London this year she held VIP tours of her studio, where she also hosted a discussion with the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Gregor Muir. Here, Emin has been commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami and the Fontainebleau hotel to produce limited edition t-shirts, flip-flops and velour beach towels. The artist also auctioned five new neons at Phillips, New York, last month, raising $185,000 for the Miami museum.

“If people are going to be cynical about fairs, don’t be part of the art world, just move out of town for the week,” Emin says. “It’s like being a supermodel and saying you hate Fashion Week.”

As well as participating as an artist, Emin says she is always on the lookout for pieces to buy at fairs. She has a burgeoning collection of ceramic works, including a small Picasso sculpture she bought at Art Basel in 2012. “It was such an amazing feeling. I was so excited, I jumped up and down,” Emin says. One of her favourite pieces, bought this year from London’s Carl Freedman gallery, is a clay and acrylic wall sculpture by Catherine Story, whose work resembles Picasso’s Cubist forms. Pieces by Klara Kristalova, Sebastian Stöhrer, Markus Karstiess, Aaron Angell and Tatiana Echeverri-Fernandez have also made it into Emin’s collection of ceramics.

Far from being an art world conformist, Emin says she also buys pieces by unknown artists from antique and flea markets. She even has a small collection of vintage pornography, with some photographs dating back more than 100 years. “It’s not something that I put on the walls or I show off, it’s just something I have,” Emin says. “I carry some of it around with me in a little portfolio because I like to reference it in my work; I’m always looking for images with the golden section.”

Emin has kept more than 10,000 personal photographs from her life, from baby snaps of her and her twin brother Paul to pictures of her in Dublin with David Bowie and his wife Iman. In April, Emin published a selection in the book, My Photo Album, a logical progression for an artist much of whose work is made from the souvenirs and traces of her existence—letters, pieces of clothing, blankets, bloodied tissues and cigarette butts.

Emin also pours her heart and soul into her exhibitions. Each one is like a work of art, created specifically for that place and time. It is the reason why she hates touring shows. “The only exhibition I’ve had [on] tour was my one from Edinburgh [which opened at the Scottish National Gallery of Art in 2008], but I became really depressed, it was awful, it almost killed me,” Emin says. “You put all your work into the thing and then you move it and it doesn’t make sense, so you have to do it all again. They say get the assistants to do it all, but they can’t.” Emin says she cancelled her exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, originally scheduled for 2013, because it was due to travel. An endowment from the Knight Foundation means the Miami show can afford to stay put.

Bonnie Clearwater, who made the “difficult” decision to leave the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami after 18 years at the helm in September (she was, she says, “aggressively” headhunted by the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale), was adamant that she was going to see Emin’s exhibition through. “By the time I went, everything was in place, the only thing left was the installation and I have been involved with that. I was very clear that I wanted to be there with Tracey,” she says. Alex Gartenfeld, the museum’s interim director and newly appointed curator, is overseeing the installation, but says he is merely the show’s “steward”.

It is perhaps surprising that Emin is only now gaining museum recognition in the US. She is represented by two American galleries, Lehmann Maupin (K15) and Gagosian (K12), and has had her fair share of commercial shows with them. But, as Emin points out, hardly any of the Young British Artist (YBA) generation has had a US museum show. “I’m late, but the others haven’t even had an exhibition,” she says. Meanwhile in the UK, Emin has become part of the art world establishment—she was awarded a CBE for her services to the arts last year. According to Graham Steele, “Tracey describes herself as ‘world famous in England’”.

As for group shows, a YBA exhibition featuring early works by Emin is due to open at Moscow’s Ekaterina Foundation in September 2014 as part of a year of Anglo-Russian cultural exchanges, but Emin has voiced her opposition to the show because of Russia’s anti-gay stance. “At first I told the British Council and [curator] David Thorp that I could not be in the show because of the vile homophobia,” she says. Emin says she is still "very reluctant" to be involved but will use the opportunity to promote gay rights instead.

On a more personal note, Emin feels that at 50 she is not ready to go down in YBA history just yet. “You know when pop bands do revival tours, for us it’s almost too soon for a revival,” she says. “We need to wait another ten years. If you’re not far enough away it doesn’t work. For us it’s still too near, it’s on our doorstep.”

Tracey Emin: Angel Without You, Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, until 9 March 2014

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