Tracey Emin was the artist commissioned to exhibit in the British Pavilion for this year’s 52nd Venice Biennale of Art 2007. There has been pressure placed on Emin to live up to expectations, as she has the honour of being only the second solo British female artist to exhibit at the British Pavilion, following on from Rachel Whiteread ten years ago.

The Commissioner for the British Pavilion, Andrea Rose in choosing Emin makes it clear that she is responding to Robert Storr’s overall theme Think with the senses; Feel with the Mind; Art in the Present Tense. Rose describes Emin’s exhibition, entitled Borrowed Light as presenting a ‘uniquely intimate form of emotional realism.’

Emin has always caused shock and controversy, not necessarily in the art world but more with the general public and the tabloid press. So the decision to have Emin exhibit in the British Pavilion seems a fitting follow up to Gilbert and George, who exhibited there at the last biennale in 2005.

For over 30 years now Gilbert and George have been slowly, meticulously moving their practice forward and their representation at Venice in 2005 proved that they still had what it took to perform at the highest level and most importantly say something new. Like Emin, Gilbert and George are past masters at creating artwork, which is confrontational and controversial, and with Emin’s reputation for shock there was potential for an interesting dialogue between the older artists and younger artist.

In comparison to Gilbert and George’s work, the progression of Emin’s work and what she presented at this years Biennale suggests that her work has not moved on greatly. Emin is pluralistic in her approach, working across a number of different medias, this makes it difficult for her to commit to an in depth examination of what she is trying to say. Emin uses drawing, embroidery, neon, oil, painting, print, sculpture and watercolour all combined within this one exhibition, all of which would be a tough feat for any artist to pull off convincingly.

The style and variation of media inside the pavilion seemed to hark back to the 1950s and there was something overly comfortable and familiar about the mode of presentation. It seemed that she had something to prove and by attempting to master all of these many mediums at once she would achieve it. In comparison to the other pavilions around her such as the Sophie Calle in the French Pavilion, Emin did not live up to her rambunctious reputation for risk taking and provocative work.

As with the Gilbert and George exhibition in 2005, there was too much of Emin’s work packed into British Pavilion. The curation of the exhibition was overwhelming and some of the work could have benefited from a reduced hang and room to breathe. The prints were the strongest pieces within the exhibition and the fragile wooden sculpture that was in the main entrance hall was the weakest and the most difficult to reconcile. During the late 1990s the tabloid press has dedicated vast column inches to Brit Art and the controversy of Emin’s artwork. When Emin first became widely recognised and successful, the press had always questioned her talent and ability. When they dug deeper into her work and training they seemed slightly disappointed at the realisation that she could actually paint and draw. I would say that Emin is a deeply traditional artist at heart, and the fact that she is now been elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in March 2007 only reinforces this. It is her press and media persona that people seem to latch onto, rather than her work.

Emin has become increasingly involved in fashion circles, the dress she wears to a private view or a society gathering seems to cause more impact of the work that she produces. It would appear that she is grooming herself as an heir apparent to her now friend Vivienne Westwood, to eventually take her mantle.

Emin says that this exhibition is her ‘most feminine body of work so far’, listing a number of opposing statements as forming the basis for the work, these include ‘sensual’ versus ‘graphically sharp’ and ‘pretty’ versus ‘hardcore’. However it is the sharp and hardcore elements that appear to amiss here in Venice.

It’s refreshing though to see the Emin’s outside of the UK because it is possible to separate the celebrity baggage that goes with it and engage with the work. Whilst Emin has had a number of successful exhibitions abroad unfortunately this is not her best example. Emin missed an opportunity in not taking more chances with the work that she produced for this year’s 52nd Venice Biennale. Whilst this international scrutiny might have damaged her reputation, her value still seems strong. This is proven by the large reserve that MoMA has just placed on a large part of this exhibition.

Michael Robbs


Top Image: The British Pavillion. Above left: I Know, I Know, I know, 2007, neon. Centre: installation shot. Right: monoprint. copyright of the artist and courtesy of White Cube, London.